Few doubt the capacity of talented and determined individuals to leave their mark on society. It’s the stuff of legend in America. But because we celebrate these supremely successful and influential individuals we tend to overlook the critical role of well-organized groups at getting things done. In his thoroughly delightful and insightful recollections, George Washington Plunkett, a turn of the 20th Century political leader in the renowned Tammany Hall machine in New York City reminds us how he got his start in politics. Seeking out his Tammany district leader he, together with a friend, pledged their undying support. Having organized two people he observed,, even so limited a group, had instantly made him a man of influence!
And so maybe it’s time we produced an account of American history that shifts the spotlight from individual heroics to group endeavor. The Puritans, for example, would not have established such solid foundations in the New World had they not been a highly organized group of true believers. Indeed they banished the charismatic Roger Williams from their midst precisely because he challenged them by asserting the central role of individual conscience and individual communion with God. Who knows if the American Revolution would ever have gotten underway were it not for the Committees of Correspondence which organized in the various towns and cities to keep people in the different colonies informed about British actions and colonial resistance. While the Founding Fathers assumed individual “wise men” would govern in America, once the government was established it soon became apparent that those running things were politicians who had joined recently organized political parties which set the political agenda for the nation.
While Americans often celebrate the intrepid pioneers who single handedly trekked to distant frontiers, the most successful ventures were those that gathered people into wagon trains for the push out west. On a similar note, we’ve long hailed the brave pony express rider who alone braved the elements and hostile Indians in order to deliver the mail. Fact is that this enterprise lasted just briefly, replaced by well-organized freight companies that connected the west coast to more populous areas back east.
In more recent memory we should not overlook the rise of organized labor. For decades workingmen and women were stymied in their effort to boost wages and improve workplaces by laws which presumed that each employee had the capacity to bargain individually on equal terms with their bosses. It was only when this legal fiction was abandoned that laboring people organized into unions and began bargaining collectively with management that working conditions changed for the better.
Let’s not omit America’s crime scene. Criminal gangs have long afflicted American society but it was only with the rise of organized crime syndicates that they emerged as a permanent, parasitical element in most regions of the country.
Few today would dispute the proposition that the surest path to influence and power is through organization. Innumerable organized interest groups lobby with great effectiveness in Washington and elsewhere. Most recently the NRA demonstrated its clout while at the same time Tea Party organizers sent a wave of like-minded politicians off to Washington. Organized pressure on the White House induced President Obama in 2012 to support the Dream Act for undocumented young people in the U.S. Environmental groups thus far have successfully organized to block a Canadian oil pipeline from entering the United States. Politicians of all sorts, often organized with assistance from the internet have flowed into state capitals and charged the political and legal landscape.
Celebrate heroic and exceptional individuals, but more forceful and successful are groups that unite for common purposes. The message is clear – Get Organized.
You get the impression that “back then” people didn’t smile very much. View “old” statues and paintings and see people rendered with serious looks on their faces (except perhaps for the Mona Lisa’s subtle smile and the occasional “happy” peasants). When photography arrived in the mid-19th Century, nothing changed – all serious expressions – nary a smile to be found.
What might have going on? Was “life” then a more serious and somber experience? After all, life expectancy was limited, disease prevalent, work exhausting and insecurity consistent. But come on – there had to be lighter, happier moments in between. Of course statues and paintings were almost always executed for the elite and powerful. They were “serious” people with demanding responsibilities. Serious portrayals were needed to confirm that fact. But it also may be that artists found that depicting “smiles” was exceptionally challenging. The lips elongate. The face becomes disorderly, creases everywhere. Far easier it was to present a visage frozen, an undisturbed, continuous facial landscape. Maybe, though, it was all about the teeth. In reality, teeth were chipped, crooked, often missing – “dentistry” barely existed. A smile would reveal such imperfections. Then there is the early photography explanation centered around the lengthy exposure times required before the subject could be captured. Better to look serious than to try to maintain a natural smile (no easy matter) for so long.
When smiles became the norm, indeed obligatory in photography and more significantly in social interaction, requires a bit of research. Surely it has something to do with the spread of cameras to the masses early in the 20-th Century. Photos taken by just about anyone began to outpace studio sessions. Formal “shots” remained but increasingly “candid”, spontaneous photos appeared.
Surely, the most convincing explanation would come from an examination of cultural changes. When did the smile emerge as a shorthand sign of happiness, contentment and an engaging personality? And why did it become so important to convey to others that you were both non-threatening and cheerful?
Starting at birth the smile is viewed as an essential milestone, a signal of sociability, a way of smoothing over rougher edges, and a reflection of inner contentment. Consider the effort that goes into making a baby smile. Assuming it’s not gas, everyone around concludes it’s one happy baby with a bright future. And so it goes throughout our lives. As for photographs, it is the rare person who can resist (“smile for the camera”) not smiling. We’ve come a long way.
There is nothing more likely to evoke waves of nostalgia about the “good old days” than the subject of everyday prices back then. For older Americans, the prices of yesteryear seem permanently locked into their memory banks. Back then, life was better and the living easier in part, they declare, because everything cost so much less. There’s no disputing that; never mind the effects of inflation and the significantly larger paychecks and incomes that folks now receive and the fact that these so-called “cheap prices” were not perceived that way at the time. And don’t bother bringing in the issues of quality. They’re not buying such “explanations”.
Let’s just talk about the prices – then and now. At which point they launch into a parade of prices from the past, beginning inevitably with the penny. Penny candy. Remember the candy dots on paper? Also, the wax syrup bottles and candy cigarettes and pretzel rods. So much pleasure for so little. Candy bars five cents. Same for a Coke and a cigar. Newspapers moved up from three to five cents. Movie admissions for kids was 15 cents, and for a few cents more you could put a gallon of gas in your tank or a quart of milk in your refrigerator. Because of such prices life seemed simpler, more manageable. Today they are sky high, so something went wrong along the way.
Remember when you were a child and you did something wrong? You may have broken a neighbor’s window or taunted your sister; or acted disrespectfully toward your mother – behavior totally unacceptable. At the very least, what you were ordered to do was to say you’re sorry. And to offer an apology, face to face with the person you’d “wronged”. Ever defiant, you refused. It was not your fault. You’ve been accused unfairly, your actions misunderstood. But unless you apologized you were going to be punished, a treat withheld, a trip canceled, or worse, immediate banishment to your room, and no TV! Reluctant and resentful you gave in and without the slightest hint of conviction, out came the obligatory “I’m sorry.” It was over quickly and was relatively painless. The matter, it seemed, had been settled.
Apologies are not something sovereign nations and their governments readily offer. Much is at stake here – national pride, unity, legal liability and the conviction of always being in the right. To accept responsibility, to concede fault can be interpreted as weakness, unbecoming a sovereign nation. , Turkey has certainly not been forthcoming regarding the deaths of Armenians in the years after 1915, nor have the Japanese apologized for forcing “comfort women” into prostitution during World War II. Germany represents a major exception, having officially acknowledged the horrific deeds of the Nazis by offering reparations and repeated apologies to the survivors of Hitler’s madness.
What about the United States? Despite its traditions as a free and open society and its celebration of diversity there’s been no shortage of shameful episodes in our past. And no rush to acknowledge and apologize for such misdeeds unless pressured into doing so. However, slowly unapologetic patriotism and self-righteousness has receded and the realization set in that conceding past wrongdoings will not undermine our Republic. Indeed, the United States, to its credit, may well rank as the leading apologizer in the world. And so in recent memory we’ve witnessed a number of official regrets apologies and admissions of wrongful conduct. Officials have said they’re sorry about the enslavement of African-Americans, the annihilation of native-Americans, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the exclusion of Chinese (1882-1943) from entering the U.S., and the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in the late 19th Century. We’ve also acknowledged and admitted responsibility for subjecting poor African-Americans to syphilis experimentation beginning in the 1930s (The Tuskegee Experiment), intentionally infecting people in Guatemala with gonorrhea and syphilis and for conducting radiation experiments on U.S. citizens.
On the world scene, official apologies are sometimes part of the delicate fabric of relationships that support diplomatic efforts; even if they have to be coaxed out of reluctant national leaders: When American air strikes killed military personnel in Pakistan, an ally, demands for an apology, initially ignored, ultimately produced an acceptance of responsibility. Earlier, President Bush apologized for the atrocious conduct of some American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison and both Bush and Obama apologized for incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan when members of our military desecrated the Koran.
Nonetheless, apologies issued by our nation’s leaders engender controversy and become politically charged. Republicans, in particular, have repeatedly declared their opposition to our apologizing to other nations whatever the circumstances. Any such concessions are deemed to be distressing signs of weakness, needless concessions in the face of baseless accusations by other nations with dubious claims to the moral high ground. They would grant automatic immunity to the United States and deny that its actions are subject to moral scrutiny.
But even a child discovers the value of saying “I’m sorry”, understands that apologies can repair and recast many a valued and necessary relationship.
Just imagine if you’d been asked to give names (other than numbers) to all the streets in America. Of course, nothing like that ever took place because the nation expanded gradually, street names added as we went along. But what a monumental undertaking it would have been. It’s of interest to consider the available name pool, what local officials drew upon when assigning names. We are, after all, talking about millions of locations.
You’d expect to find, and you would, authorities selecting the names of people of some local repute. So if you happened upon street signs inscribed to O’Sullivan, Osgood, Bentley, Carpenter, Driscoll, Turley, etc., you’d be safe to assume those folks were, at some point, well-known community figures.
After that it gets more predictable. “Main” probably takes the prize for the most common of street names. It’s a fair guess that “Broadway” is not far behind. Then it becomes a matter of identifying suitable categories and harvesting their yield. American presidents are a good place to begin. Start with our first and work your way through to the mid-20th Century. It’s a safe bet that every chief executive (along with many of the Founding Fathers) have spread across the land; even our least lustrous leaders (viz, Pierce, Buchanan, Johnson, Harding and Coolidge).
Trees are deemed most suitable because they provide reassurance that rural roots have not been entirely forsaken. And so we encounter Oak, Hickory, Maple, Cherry, Cypress, Elm, Pine and Willow Streets again and again. Probably for similar reasons, flowers are called upon to serve – Rose, Carnation, Cherry Blossom, Lilac, Violet, Daisy, Orchid, etc.
For a touch of class, there’s always the Ivy League (Yale, Harvard, Princeton, etc.) or a roll call of English names (Brompton, Essex, Sedgewick, Hampshire, Warwick, Buckingham, etc.). State names (California, Maine, Arizona, Dakota, Virginia, etc.) enjoy almost universal popularity as do local topographical features (Glen, Meadow, Forest, Lake, River, Valley, Hilltop, Ridge, Summit, etc.). Often the street names of new subdivisions become a family affair when builders or developers designate next of kin. That often explains locations such as Monica, Henry, Judy, Karen, Leslie, Jeffrey, and Rebecca.
Then there is the related and often baffling issue of roadway designations. Distinctions here tend to be arbitrary and mysteriously inconsistent. Now a “circle” should conform to its name, but is there any recognizable difference between a “road” and a “street” or a “drive”? An “avenue” one assumes should be comparatively broader and larger, but that’s not always so. A “lane” or a “way” or a “path” one imagines can easily be substituted one for another. And where does that leave “place”?
As long as residential and commercial areas expand and new subdivisions emerge we will require additional names. But not to worry. Americans have no difficulty repeating themselves here, often assigning familiar and comforting identities, instantly recognizable, to places just making their debut on local maps.
In a matter of a year or two, Great Britain may no longer be so great. That’s because Scottish nationalists are currently working to sever most every significant connection with London. This is no longer viewed as an utterly romantic quest because elsewhere around the world centrifugal political forces have long been operating. The nation state is under pressure in many places: the parts are challenging the whole.
History books have long focused upon those bold leaders who succeeded mostly through conquest, organizational genius and administrative skill in knitting together far flung regions and diverse peoples into nations or empires. It seemed natural to go that route because it conferred power and glory and introduced unprecedented orderliness into what otherwise was a fragmented and turbulent landscape. Nation building often involved squelching regional autonomy, neutralizing local rulers and erasing traditional privileges. And when it worked out, say with Mazzini in Italy, or more notably with Bismarck in Germany, you ended up with a powerful new entity far more impressive than the sum of its original parts.
Today it’s often a different story. Many of those territorial pieces and “diverse peoples,” once just tossed into the mix, have become openly disaffected and, no longer accepting the deal they got- they want out. Some protest that the wealth of their region is being transferred unfairly to other parts of the country. Were they now to go it alone, substantial economic benefits would follow, with local wealth retained, not redirected. (Reminiscent of the time when southerners in the United States believed their cotton wealth went mainly for the benefit of northern merchants and shippers. That point of view helped set the stage for the showdown in 1861.) In other places people insist that they’re being discriminated against for ethnic, cultural or religious reasons, and that leaders at the national level consistently ignore local sensitivities and traditions. Some point out that their incorporation into the larger entity was, at the outset, a mistake, the result either of coercion or mindless indifference by authorities, often foreigners who drew the original boundary lines.
Recent decades have illustrated the persistence and power of these local movements and the serious challenges they present to arrangements, often of long standing. Within memory, though circumstances might differ; we can point to the breakup of India, with Muslim Pakistan splitting off as an independent nation and then itself being diminished by the creation of Bangladesh out of the former East Pakistan. The Eritrean population engaged in a 30-year war against Ethiopia before it achieved independence in 1993. In that same year, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist, its internal incompatibility reflected in the formation of two new countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Also in the 90s the world witnessed the breakup of the Soviet Union and the creation of a host of new republics within its former borders. More recently, Kosovo broke away from Serbia and South Sudan from Sudan. And it’s hard to know what’s keeping Belgium together.
Of course, not all break-away movements succeed. Canadians have successfully warded off efforts by French-speaking Quebec to go its own way. Nigeria suppressed the attempts by Biafra to forge an independent nation. And for years Russia has kept a rebellious Chechnya under its iron fist. Still, the world scene is far from stable. The Kurds residing within the territories of several nations still long to have their own state, as do populations in Darfur, Tibet, East Timor, the Basque regions of Spain and France, and even sections of Italy.
Years from now history books will, unlike in the past, pay more attention to these local movements within nation states, viewing many as legitimate efforts at self-determination or home rule and representing a serious challenge or perhaps even signaling the end of an era of national expansion and consolidation. There are certain to be observers less sanguine about the consequences of such a splintering, as it undermines the ability of the nation state to govern effectively.
We already have over 200 nations across the globe. Is that enough, or are we likely, in the near future, to see additional national flags unfurled and rippling in the wind?
It’s no wonder the vast cosmos appears to be dark, formless and largely void, and that an all-powerful guiding hand seems absent from world affairs. That’s because God, for centuries now, has been pre-occupied with the United States. He’s got his hands full there, called upon to serve as the nation’s special guardian, asked constantly to perform all manner of services and held accountable by its people for whatever occurs, good or bad. Americans may denounce Big Government activism, but they certainly expect Almighty God to do all that he can for them.
Americans tied their fortunes to God from the very beginning and have been contractually obligated ever since. It was God’s Country from the start. God, they insisted, had set aside our pristine continent, keeping it unknown until He was ready to populate it with hardy bands of God-fearing followers. These people, created in God’s image, therefore, had strong claims to freedom and equality. That’s what made possible victory in the struggle for our independence from England when “Nature’s God” according to the Declaration of independence declared us worthy to stand on our own as a free people.
The new United States of America maintained its close ties with God who seemed genuinely pleased with his people when they prospered, grew greatly in numbers and spread rapidly over the land. But understanding God’s intention eventually brought discord and disharmony when controversy over slavery engulfed the nation. Slaveholders in the South insisted that the Bible, the word of God, sanctioned slavery and that they were performing His work by bringing heathen Africans to an understanding of the Lord. Southerners, moreover, considered themselves to be a people far more Godly than their Northern brethren who, clustered in cities, had become ever more sinful and materialistic. Northerners countered by declaring slavery to be an abomination, a terrible sin which God wanted erased from the land. And so the war came – both sides staking their claims to God’s favor. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”, sang Northern soldiers as they marched through the South and to ultimate victory. God had taken a stand.
And a re-united U.S. has ever since remained “one nation under God”. Today, congregants in nearly 300,000 houses of worship across the United States sing his praises while tens of millions of Americans “Thank God”, and accept Him unquestionably as the creator of the world. When they sing “God Bless America”, it is with the conviction that He remains an infallible guide and guardian. And when misfortune strikes the country, it is God, they say, displeased at our behavior who has brought retribution upon us.
So broadly is God woven into our cultural fabric that it’s practically taken for granted. A mere sneeze will bring “God Bless you”, with a “God willing” accompanying your hope for a positive outcome to a “God damn it” when it turns out otherwise. We promise in court to tell the truth “so help me God”, though it may be that only “God Knows” what that is. We bargain with God in a crisis, and are willing to assume some onerous task in exchange for his benign intervention. Athletes repeatedly call upon Him at critical times and openly thank him (by gesturing to heaven) when He delivers for them. “God be with you” represents our earnest hope for others and ourselves as we painstakingly make our way through life “with God’s help.”
Who doesn’t tell stories, frequently entertaining – often persuasive? Take my advice, however – don’t accept them at face value. Typically, they’re a blend of facts and fictions; and good luck disentangling the two.
Story telling has been going on since the dawn of time. Clans and tribes constructed their oral traditions and passed them on from generation to generation. Larger communities related tales of heroic origins, glorious conquests and fortuitous interventions by all-powerful gods. To historians these narratives, however contrived, are nevertheless invaluable.
In more modern times nations have done likewise, telling stories of past glories while pruning troublesome chapters from the historical record. Thus, the United States constructs a glowing portrait of hardy pioneers pushing westward where marvelous opportunities awaited an expanding nation. The British present a story of imperial expansion across the globe, an uplifting tale of advancing civilization. The Russians hail the Bolshevik Revolution for ushering in a new dawn of freedom while the Chinese speak of centuries of backwardness and humiliation until the ascendancy of Mao Zedong. These national narratives are predictably flawed. Historical amnesia rules. Americans said little about the displacement or annihilation of native Americans. The British remained mum about the exploitation of their colonials and the Russians and Chinese changed the subject when it came to the murder of millions of their own people.
Narratives rarely go unchallenged. Even the Holocaust, a horrific event of unspeakable brutality, testified to by countless survivors is contested. A determined band of Holocaust deniers insist upon their own sanitized account of events. Turks and Armenians have each produced conflicting stories about the enormous bloodletting that occurred during the World War I years. Neither accepts the other’s version. The Israelis and the Palestinians remain at an impasse buttressed in part by clashing narratives about when each settled in the region as well as the war that led to the establishment of Israel.
Closer to home, polarized politics almost always produce conflicting narratives. Divergent accounts attempt to “explain” either the successes or failures of New Deal policies, while the Reagan years have generated opposing story lines about the real Reagan: Why did we invade Iraq? How were decisions made after the ouster of Saddam Hussein? Pick your story. More recently Democrats and Republicans have crafted their own accounts of the bank bailouts, the stimulus package, rescues of the automobile companies and the policies of the Federal Reserve. Just tune in to any Sunday talk show to hear these carefully scripted but divergent narratives endlessly repeated, defiantly maintained.
We all have our own personal narratives as well, prepackaged tales ready for presentation when opportunities arrive. With such accounts we reinforce how we wish others to view us. As Americans, handy templates are readily available with which to frame our stories, the rags-to-riches immigrant success and underdogs triumphant scripts among the more popular. Lately we’ve been partial to a novel twist on the standard success format, one that features heroic struggles against drug addition, alcohol dependency, physical abuse, sexual exploitation and fractured families. But then second chances have long been in favor here.
So, remember well that nations as well as individuals will always be eager to tell you their stories and offer their version of events. Listen politely, listen critically – don’t accept or pass on what doesn’t pass muster.
Nowadays there’s not much to gassing up at the local service station unless you’re also snack food shopping at the attached mini mart. That’s because the “service” component has in most instances, disappeared. Typically, the transaction now is impersonal, uneventful, and rapid. Hand the attendant, encased in a semi-sealed booth, your card or your cash, or place your plastic directly into the slot on the pump, then start it up, squeeze the nozzle and stand there rather awkwardly while gasoline flows into your tank at a cost that blows holes in many a family budget. In winter you are likely to freeze and in summer overheat as you wait for the pump to conclude its business automatically. And whatever the season, for your efforts you’ve probably also inhaled an unhealthy dose of fumes and discovered a distinct odor of gasoline on your hands. It wasn’t always this way. Indeed, there really were good old days when it came to gassing up.
Remember when you pulled into a service station and it was service you got (and probably close to a tank of gas for your few dollars). Rarely was there any need for you to step out of the car. The only effort required was that you roll down your window and indicate how much gas you wanted. Then, from the vantage point of your front seat, you watched as attendants, at times two or three of them, often outfitted in neat uniforms and matching caps, descended upon your vehicle enthusiastically and efficiently. While gas gushed into your tank, your oil level was checked, your wiper blades examined and – if necessary – cleaned and adjusted. Water was added, if need be, to your radiator, and battery and antifreeze measured and, if low, replenished. Windows, both in front and rear, were wiped and scraped clean together with side-view mirrors, and sometimes even headlights when bespattered by mud. Tire pressure was measured and tubes inflated to proper levels. When requested, minor repairs might even be undertaken, such as replacing a light bulb or a fuse or straightening a bent antenna. Furthermore, station attendants often found time for a friendly chat, and if asked furnished reliable directions and supplied maps – all free.
And that wasn’t all. If your timing was right, a customer promotion might be underway. Fill ‘er up and get yourself a prize – a set of glassware, a mug, a beach ball, a stuffed animal, a basketball, even a baseball bat. Then, too, you might have pulled in during yet another gasoline price war. Imagine a tank full of gas and money still left over in your pocket!
And yes, if nature called, there were bathrooms both unlocked and clean (indeed separate ones for men and women). And then off you drove with a supply of full-bodied leaded gasoline and the confidence that comes from having your car professionally and completely serviced. Those were the days.
To visit Ellis Island in New York Harbor you leave by boat (but not before a complete security check) from the southern tip of Manhattan and thus reverse the trip taken by millions of immigrants who arrived there toward the end of the 19th and the early years of the 20th Century. Their first stop after all was at the Immigrant processing center on the island. If they passed inspection – and overwhelmingly they did – they were then permitted to proceed across the harbor to the mainland.
Today, the Ellis Island facility after long years of neglect and decay has, as I discovered, been reconstructed and converted into a gem of a museum. Here it is possible to travel back in time, and thanks to wonderfully detailed photos, recordings, explanatory charts, research data bases and an abundance of immigrant artifacts, relive the process that preceded entry into America. But all this information and illustration would not have the same impact were it not for the fact that today’s visiting crowds could easily be substituted for the masses of humanity that flooded ashore over a century ago. I observe their excitement as they board the boat that will take them across the magnificent harbor with its spectacular view of lower Manhattan and onto Ellis Island. They’ve come from across the globe. I listen to their animated conversations overhear a medley of languages that defy easy recognition. I watch their expressions as the ship passes directly in front of the Statue of Liberty. Looking up at this world-renowned symbol of American freedom, they are transfixed, almost reverential, much as were the original immigrants. They rush to take photos of their companions and family members with Miss Liberty in the background until the boat gradually passes out of range.
Once inside the exhibition halls, they observe, they read, studiously absorbing the information presented. (Did you know that during the great period of immigration, about 2.5 million Canadians entered the United States?)
Some people have come to relive what relatives long ago must have experienced. And here is where Ellis Island succeeds best. It takes little imagination after visiting the various staging areas to sense the combination of anxiety, fear, hope, and exhilaration that each person no doubt felt as he or she stepped off the boat to begin the bewildering process – that would determine their destiny. True, only about 2% of those who arrived would be rejected (e.g., due to illness, trachoma, illiteracy, anarchist beliefs, etc.) and sent back across the Atlantic, but how could they know their fate as they waited amidst crowds (at peak periods, up to 5000 individuals passed through Ellis each day) to be observed, inspected, tested and questioned by strangers. And if they themselves were passed through, what assurance was there that all other family members would? And if one or more were detained would all then decide to return home? Recognizing that such a possibility existed was itself a painful burden.
Immigration is perhaps our finest and most inspiring story. Like no other place in the world the idea of America prompted millions upon millions to make the journey despite all the obstacles, known and unknown. Arriving at Ellis Island meant that they had reached the last stage of their epic trek. And based on what I saw and learned there the United States can take credit for organizing this final stage of the process so that it was properly efficient and largely respectful of those eager to become Americans.