For millions upon millions of Americans of a “certain age,” the cultural landscape has changed dramatically, become largely unrecognizable; familiar guide posts gone. They’re right. Never before in our history have public attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, standards and expectations turned over so thoroughly or as rapidly.
An exaggeration? The U. S. has, after all, long been a dynamic society given over to change, experimentation, novelty; its people far less bound by tradition than most any other. Isn’t our history filled with odd individuals and with efforts to break the mold, veering off in unexpected directions? Didn’t most every town once produce a village atheist who boldly challenged prevailing religious practices and beliefs? What about Amelia Bloomer, an early and representative suffragette and advocate for more sensible female attire? Consider as well those “utopian” communities organized by the middle of the 19th Century that challenged existing practices about gender roles, marriage and property rights; or the frontiersmen and “mountain men” who lit out for the wide open west and lived independent lives beyond the boundaries of civilization. Later on musicians created “jazz” and scandalized polite society with novel sounds and rhythms. Conventional society prefers to limit such disruptive influences. Recall how super salesman “Professor” Harold Hill shrewdly played on such fears, challenging townsfolk in “The Music Man,” with his memorable jeremiad “Ya Got Trouble.” River City (Iowa) children, he warned, were behaving in strange
new, unorthodox ways – playing pool, smoking, reading “dime novels,” while certain words were creeping into their conversation, like “swell,” and “So’s your old man.” Such worrisome signs of cultural decline could be offset, he urged, by the discipline and diversion a marching band would provide. And so came uniforms and instruments: order restored.
Hill’s remedy reminds us how American Society has typically responded. For much of our history we’ve managed, despite all the centrifugal cultural dynamics unleashed over the years, to rein in most of them. Religious authorities of all sorts were insistent, and influential voices marking the boundaries of acceptable thought and behavior. The omnipresent McGuffey reader re-enforced these norms in the nation’s classrooms. A genteel “Victorian” culture prescribed what was acceptable and outwardly proper. Etiquette books described the contours of polite society, while the Comstock Law (1873) kept prurient materials out of the U.S. mail. Later on, objectionable books were banned, preachers railed against the blasphemy of “Evolution” and Hollywood movie codes restricted what could be displayed on the silver screen. To prevent cultural changes deemed “alien” and unacceptable, certain immigrant groups were denied entry into the country, hard liquor was banned for over a decade, and Presidential candidate Al Smith was overwhelmingly defeated (1928) because he represented “the sidewalks of New York” which, to most, seemed altogether threatening and un-American.
Thus it is fair to say that while our culture obviously changed over the years, the “guardians” of organized society, in one way or another, were largely successful in maintaining traditions, enforcing existing standards, and supporting familiar ways. And then they lost that ability. Date the start of this process, if you wish, somewhere in the 1960’s and then ever since. Look almost everywhere and you can’t miss it. So much that was once familiar no longer is.
Music, dance, language, dress, body décor (tattoos), food preferences, etc. A gusher of technology flooded the society – computers, cell phones, IPads, ear buds, recording devices, GPS inventions, security systems, camera installations, payment networks, Zoom and podcasts, and a host of other communication and transmissions options. We now can talk endlessly at a distance, entertain ceaselessly, gather together spontaneously – engage with one another 24-7. Gender identities blurred, sexual relations were redefined, family structures unwound. Women have asserted themselves as never before, minorities press tirelessly for acceptance and equitable treatment. The drug culture flourishes while God figures less and less. And there’s more….. but enough.
Why the culture dam broke is a complicated question for another time. But it is real, buffeting millions and impacting almost everyone. Bewilderment, alienation, anger, exhilaration, liberation, political calculation and partisan exploitation – all of the above apply. The most we can say now is we aren’t going back; it’s not going away. But what the road ahead looks like remains an open and tantalizing mystery.
Eating is what we do – all the time. We have no choice, although MOST of us are fortunate, and can decide what to eat. Who doesn’t have their favorite foods? Individual tastes aside, however, there is wide agreement that certain foods have symbolic significance, represent more than just appearance taste or nutritional value and are associated with a range of emotions and cultural signals. Consider the following menu:
Bread – Because it is the “staff of life,” our “daily bread” has come to represent the basic ingredients for our survival. Even a few crumbs may help sustain us. Add butter to the bread for nourishment and symbolic sufficiency. Bread is filling; bread satisfies. Can a meal not include bread?
Soup – Comfort food that fills the stomach. Not a thin gruel but a hearty blend of solid ingredients and flavorful liquid. A bowl becomes a meal in itself. On a cold day, a perfect prescription.
Steak – In a nation of compulsive meat eaters, steak (more often for men) represents the prize, the reward, the symbol and measure of success. Find a job, get a promotion and a raise, complete a challenging task – then it’s time to cap off your good fortune with a steak dinner, cooked to your specifications, whatever the price. Sizzling, tender, juicy meat, savored slowly – what could be better or more satisfying? Add a side of mashed potatoes and you become yet another who regards “meat and potatoes” as a supreme treat.
Coffee – “Start your engines!” For million upon millions of Americans, coffee is the essential fuel, the “wake up” call for the day ahead. Demanding work? Coffee will keep you going. Long hours? With coffee you will stay awake and sharp. Need a “time out” and friendly conversation? A coffee break (minus the cigarette nowadays) will fill the bill. Count on coffee to signal the end of a meal. “A second cup?” “Yes, please.” And of course, dessert – for many, the meal’s highlight.
Ice Cream – Is there anyone who doesn’t like ice cream? Unlikely. Ice cream is the fun food, the gleeful lick and the cold comfort. Want to get kids excited or obedient? Promise them ice cream. Flavors galore, in cones, cups, on a stick or in a dish. Smooth, creamy, delicious; to be eaten on the street, in a car (can get messy) or in an ice cream parlor. Summer, of course, but all year round as well.
While few will disagree with the listings above, many will remind us about hot dogs at the ball park, burgers at a cookout, pizza at a party, etc. They will get no argument here. One meal at a time, please.
Remember the Cold War? I do. It was scary. I was afraid. I recall joining fellow students upon being told to duck under our desks, or head to the basement. Communism challenged us; Russia threatened us. Newspapers reported that the Soviet Union posed a serious military menace. Did they not have more offensive hardware? Our Navy was number one, but consider their tanks, artillery and military forces arrayed against us. Russian spies, we learned, performed dastardly deeds and “Com symps” in this country insisted their system was superior to our decaying capitalism. Could those arguing we might be “better dead than red” have a point? And even if neither side deliberately launched an attack, a nuclear accident could make life on earth uninhabitable (for those who survived).
Well, here we go again. This time it is China positioned at the opposite end of the geopolitical see-saw. No paper tiger here. Their population dwarfs our numbers. Their economic output is poised to outstrip ours, while their military poses a serious and growing threat. Technologically, they are our equals (we both have real estate on Mars), and what they themselves don’t devise, they appropriate or steal from us. China has informed the world that their system is more robust and dynamic than ours and that American weaknesses and political polarization render us no longer fit for world leadership, which they seem eager to assume (viz: one Belt, one Road).
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once warned America that, “We will bury you!” That prediction happily landed with a thud. Will we also, in the end, prevail over China? They’ve got problems galore (would you believe a growing shortage of workers?). And they are breathing air far more polluted than ours; furthermore, authoritarians likely have a discard date.
But it just may be that this new “Cold War” clash succeeds in bringing Americans together. We all agree that it represents a serious challenge and ongoing threat. Republicans and Democrats have actually joined forces to pass a multi-billion dollar package aimed to counter China and to bolster America’s technological capabilities. And our corporations, eager to peddle their products and services to hundreds of millions of increasingly prosperous Chinese, will certainly push hard to prevent a rupture in relations.
So what if we share the world with China? Surely it’s big enough for the both of us. Better a partner than an adversary.
Americans have long held themselves in high regard. We are, most all of us, God-fearing, freedom-loving, upbeat, energetic strivers, eager to take on challenges and confident about the future. Recently, however, there’s been reason to wonder about the accuracy of such a self-assessment. Police killings, bizarre conspiracy theories, Covid complacency, extremist activism, threats to democracy, the storming of the Capitol, widespread economic hardship, all raise questions about our fundamental character and the assumed goodness of our people.
Assessing populations as a whole probably makes little sense and would, in any event, yield imprecise generalizations of limited value. Far more interesting and achievable is the prospect of evaluating individuals and determining specific “life achievement” levels. Setting aside genetic inheritance, environmental circumstances broadly conceived and good or bad fortune, we could ask how fully realized is this or that person. We would consider a broad range of behaviors, a complete record of achievement together with an account of observable deficiencies. This is no simple task, for individuals are not inclined to full disclosure, seek rather to present themselves in selective and positive ways, concealing limitations, masking motivations, posing and deceiving. Numerous independent witnesses must be interviewed, evidence sought from a multitude of sources. We must bear in mind what is possible and desirable in each area of inquiry. We must pay attention to course corrections, to changes over time – for better or worse. We must not be swayed by notably admirable qualities and high levels of specific achievement that divert attention away from other less positive traits and behaviors. Before assigning grades (1-10), we must not permit the observable to be minimized by the perfect. Areas of consideration must also be tailored to the specific “life paths” of individuals, but, in general, the following represents the principal concerns of our investigators.
• Looks, appearance, dress, bearing.
• Emotionally appropriate, controlled, self-aware.
• Intelligence, common sense, curiosity, educational achievement.
• Broad-minded, tolerant, low levels of prejudice.
• Friendly, kind, supportive, concern for others.
• Real, up front, straight shooter.
• Honesty, integrity, reliability.
• Steady career advancement, skills enhancement.
• Charitable, generous, organizationally involved, community-oriented.
• Ongoing family ties, long-term partner or companion.
It is time now to take the complete measure of people you know. Score them from one to ten in all of the above categories. Be fair, compile evidence from your own observations and from others with direct knowledge. Don’t be surprised to uncover inconsistencies, for example, in a high-achieving individual who is also a complete phony, or in an impressively intelligent person who all too often flies off the handle. Low grades will not be uncommon. Admirable individuals will score 70 and above. Be cautious before announcing your grades.
We all came into the world possessing nothing other than our own name. But that name was not of our choosing: It was rather a decision made for us by our parents for reasons of their own. We’re obliged to live with their choice (though not always) for the rest of our lives. It belongs to us and we strive, as best we can, to protect and defend “our good name.” Of course, it is somewhat upsetting to discover, as almost always we do, that others, unrelated to us, bear the exact same name. We manage to get over this, recognizing that we are, after all, unique.
While it is true that we can, on our own, adopt an alias or pseudonym, our names are, for the most part, imposed upon us. Take nicknames (or pet names) for example. Parents bestow them on children, friends join in with their own inventions, while the press often delights in creating alternate identities. Now nicknames are in fact often endearing, help humanize and personalize others; still they are largely unalterable and attach indefinitely, people ordinarily unable to shed them.
Looking back in time we note how people have long been at the mercy of name “assigners.”
• Women who married typically were obliged to surrender their maiden names and assume their husbands’ surnames.
• Slaves arriving in America came with African names, which were usually cast aside, replaced by those imposed by their new owners.
• Native Americans were encouraged by legislation in 1887 (Dawes Act) to abandon tribal lands and loyalties, assimilate and assume standard American names. Jim Thorpe (hardly an Indian name) did, nevertheless, make a name for himself.
• On occasion officials on Ellis Island misunderstood the statements of nonEnglish-speaking immigrants and transcribed names they imagined they heard.
• The Nazis, in an effort to thwart Jewish name changing, ordered that every male Jewish name include “Israel”, and every Jewish woman “Sarah.”
• Celebrities in the U.S. were widely encouraged to replace given names and adapt those with more “universal” appeal.Thus Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas; Carlos Esteves. Charlie Sheen; Margaret Hyra, Meg Ryan; Mark Sinclair, Vin Diesel; and Joaquin Bottom, Joaquin Phoenix.
There has, however, been a reaction, a re-assertion of individual agency. A more fluid landscape of gender identity has given rise to name changing to reflect emergent realities. Jewish Americans, once inclined to name changing in order to gain acceptance into “proper” society, have generally ceased such practices. Celebrities Ben Stiller, Sacha Baron Cohen, Adam Sandler, and Jeff Goldblum represent this recent development. Many African American names now reflect an awakened sense of group pride and shared heritage. Married women no longer automatically surrender maiden names, either retaining them or blending former and current surnames.
When Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?” he might not have realized how complicated and revealing that question would become over the years.
We once understood and largely accepted the boundaries that defined much of what we believed, the way arranged our lives and how societies were organized. They allowed us to go about our business and to avoid surprises, especially unpleasant ones. Of course, expected to “know their place” and small, local business operations their geographic limits, regarded the prescribed boundaries as unwelcome and unfair.
But America has always been about testing and stretching boundaries. England’s aristocratic society and Established Church both crumbled after the American Revolution. The former colonial boundaries burst apart as Americans surged westward. More recently, the boundaries that long confined women were redrawn or simply disappeared.
Today, boundaries long in place, are being breached, even obliterated. Whether welcomed or deeply resented, the process, for many, has been unusually unsettling. Take note of the following developments.
• Businesses have changed shape, expanded beyond long established limits. Gas stations now have mini marts attached. Walmart sells groceries and Amazon has exploded far beyond peddling books. Once a successful enterprise goes the franchise route thousands of units spring up across the country. Businesses expand globally: their products arriving on our shores from anywhere in the world.
• Male and female boundaries can no longer contain the many additional identities people have claimed. Families now present in many sizes, shapes and relationships. They are single, extended, blended, co-parented, same sex, etc.
• We’re stretching the boundaries of earth, heading into space more consistently and confidently than ever before.
• News sources spill out beyond all former and formal boundaries. Social media, podcasts, talk radio, the internet, and television: all compete for our attention.
• Facts, validity, evidence were once understood and generally agreed upon. Now truth is under assault, become a contested arena amidst a swirl of opinions, suspicions, falsehoods, a polarized citizenary and conspiratorial fantasies.
All the above is both liberating and unsettling, leaving many of us confused and conflicted as boundaries shift continuously. Barriers have been lifted and freedoms expanded, but let’s not forget that boundaries have also helped us define and reinforce what is worth defending and preserving.
Now that Donald Trump has exited the White House, how much influence will he wield on the political scene? Only time will tell. Our history, however, does offer a possible answer. Very, very few American presidents retained much power upon leaving office. Most passed quietly from the scene, some became respected “elder statesmen,” but not the “decision makers” they had formerly been. Of course this is not an entirely fair inquiry since our greatest presidents, Lincoln and Roosevelt, did not enjoy a post-presidency, and Washington died shortly after leaving office.
Still there are some notable exceptions who should be considered in this survey. Andrew Jackson, who left office in 1837, remained an acknowledged player in the Democratic Party, forcefully supporting the annexation of Texas and the selection of James Polk as the party’s presidential candidate in 1844. Our sixth president, John Quincy Adams, after his term of office, became a nine-term Congressman from Massachusetts and an outspoken champion of the antislavery movement. William Howard Taft, after leaving office in 1913, joined the Yale law faculty, and then in 1920 became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court during a period in which judicial conservatism was in the ascendancy. Though resigning after the disgrace of “Watergate,” Richard Nixon nevertheless managed, in the view of many, to “rehabilitate” himself and to enjoy an extended career as an elder statesman and sagacious analyst of the international scene. It’s been forty years since Jimmy Carter left the White House and his reputation as President still seems to register not much beyond lackluster. Nevertheless, his post-presidency has been remarkable, not in terms of wielding power, but rather for the “good works” he has performed. His peacekeeping, election monitoring and humanitarian efforts have been widely acclaimed, his religious convictions admired, and his writings widely appreciated.
So we finally arrive at the President who, compared to all others, managed to remain influential well beyond his White House years. Teddy Roosevelt, who became president in 1901 upon the assassination of President McKinley, could have run again in 1908 but to his lasting regret publicly announced well before that he would not. But upon breaking with his successor, President William Howard Taft, he chose to return to the political wars. He re-entered the fray in 1910, this time championing a “New Nationalism” and laid out an extensive progressive agenda. He ran for president in 1912 under the banner of the “Progressive Party.” And though he lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, he far exceeded Taft’s tally and gained the largest percentage of the overall vote of any third party ever. He determined to run again in 1916, but failed to gain the support of Republican leaders. Nevertheless, he did obtain Congressional support to raise a separate military unit under his command, to fight in World War I (as he’d done in the Spanish-American War). President Wilson, however, would not approve. Still, as the 1920 presidential campaign, was getting underway, it appeared that Roosevelt had the inside track to his party’s nomination. It would not be. Roosevelt died in 1919 at the age of 61.
So, what does this excursion through our past reveal? It’s clear, if you exclude TR, that no other president has been able to remain the master of events after his term in office ends. The nation moves on; other individuals move up and take control. Donald Trump, in essential ways, is no Teddy Roosevelt. Still, Roosevelt was the consummate showman, was bombastic, played to an attentive press, loved the military, threatened war, and attracted an adoring public. Sound familiar?
How often are we told that what we’re experiencing is totally without precedent? We are witnessing, it is asserted, something altogether unique. Nothing like it has ever occurred before. So noteworthy, it is destined, therefore, to “go down in history” for this very reason.
That kind of talk is all too common. The greatest scandal in history – the most powerful army assembled since the beginning of time – the most sinister conspiracy ever hatched – the worst atrocity of all time – the most impressive list of achievements ever. Everyone invokes “history” to sound serious, to add substance to their remarks. But do they ever offer any proof, any specific evidence from the past? Do they ever consult with historians? Are they even interested in learning about those parallels the past might actually offer?
“History,” when so invoked, stands mute, takes no steps to engage with the issues raised. “History” is wise for doing so, understands that such glib references to the past are merely verbal devices, argumentative ornaments, not in any way considered judgements History is, after all, about meticulous research and considered interpretation, not overheated evidence-free rhetoric.
As late Fall retreats toward Winter, the woods grow silent and grim, largely lifeless. Winged creatures of all sorts have long since departed, while familiar four-legged denizens become mysteriously scarce. But it is the trees, most all nearly bald and indecently exposed, that underscore the bleak landscape that greets the observer. Not long ago, before these same trees -resplendent in their green mantles – filled the woods with millions of leaves of all sizes and shapes, swaying and rustling restlessly as breezes hurried their way through its ranks. Then came Fall and the extravagant palate of color, nature’s own dramatic “fireworks” show, rivaling by day the managed explosions of night sky displays.
But with Fall’s passing forests around here now have little to offer except a dispiriting landscape of decay and death. Upon the forest floor are endless layers of dead and rotting leaves, once proudly on display upon the branches above, now cast off, destined to serve merely as shapeless ground cover in the years to come. All about, trees stand disfigured, having been rudely assailed by wind and rain, limbs broken, trunks cracked, root systems exposed, detached from the soil which once sheltered and nourished them. Most ominously, lying in every which direction, one discovers an arboreal graveyard: Trees, many of great length and bulk, which once soared toward the heavens, now strewn upon the ground, their fate sealed, at rest but not at peace. Were this a battlefield (which in some ways it resembles) no commander would dare proclaim victory. Indeed, the many jogged stumps would serve as forlorn monuments to the fallen.
Nature, perhaps out of respect, has begun draping some with green moss, hiding the advance of deterioration and decay. Most, however, lie about helter-skelter, frozen often at awkward angles, lifeless wreckage to haunt the area for decades to come, a morbid message to those sturdy trees around them.
The good news for those disposed to dwell on this desolate scene is that in time Spring and Summer will once again arrive, new life and a fresh dense vibrant mantle of green returning to blot out the underlying wasteland revealed by Winter.
Is America, our country, at a crossroads? Can it be reunited, recommitted, restored, repaired, energized, or have we lost our resiliency, our ability to rise to the occasion, to act boldly, with confidence in our future? Let us pause at his crossroad and consider our directional possibilities ahead. Which path will we choose?
• Can we break the logjam in congress and achieve bipartisan support for essential legislation?
• Can we undertake a massive vaccine rollout that breaks the back of the pandemic, gets our schools up and running and allows us to resume the normal routines, rhythms, and responsibilities of our lives?
• Will we speed relief to the unemployed and small businesses about to expire, to renters threatened with eviction, and immigrants waiting to pursue the American Dream?
• Can we devise effective ways to address racial disparities, income inequality and educational shortcomings?
• It’s about time we initiated a program to modernize our infra structure while accelerating entry into the world of clean energy and environmental stability.
• Will those seeking partisan advantages stall these steps needed to move forward?
• Will deceitful leaders and angry voices keep us from advancing?
• Will those scornful of the facts continue to elevate ignorance, sow confusion and promote conflict?
• Will our efforts prove inadequate, fall short, and our situation remain little improved?
Soon enough we will get some answers to those urgent questions. Meanwhile, perhaps we can take heart from the stirring words of our inauguration poet, Amanda Gorman, who urged us to “. . . .lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but to what stands before us,” and by so doing “….. forge our union with purpose.”