Archive for the ‘History’ Category

0701_010501In the late 19th Century, the U.S. was going through an Era which Mark Twain famously termed the “Gilded Age”. It was an age where government and business acted as one against the rights of the workers and consumers. It was an age of overwhelming corruption where monopolies and trusts controlled the Congress and government regulation was almost non-existent.

However, there became a strong movement against this beginning with the Populist and Labor Movements and later on taking root in the Progressive Movement. People realized that the corrupt system where a few profited while the majority suffered could simply not continue. There needed to be major reforms: worker’s rights, an end to child labor, consumer protections, industrial regulations, and destruction of harmful monopolies.

Theodore Roosevelt, Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson are considered the three progressive presidents. However, the real source of change came from the grassroots movements which were willing to face enormous odds and stand up to a system that was so deeply corrupt that it seemed impossible to change. Because those individuals did stand up for the rights of the common people, some of the worst excesses of the Capitalist system were tamed. The fact that we have a limit on our work week, some type of government oversight of our food and medicine, and basic safety standards is due largely to the Progressive Era.

The problem is that we have forgotten about the progressive reforms which were made. We have taken them for granted. We are slowly drifting back into another Gilded Age where the rights of the workers and consumers are stripped, and a powerful oligarchy (just think of the Koch brothers) is taking control of the nation. Amazingly, there are many in the middle and working class which are indifferent and even applauding of these changes. There is no memory of what life was like before some people had the courage to taken on the corporatized system of 19th Century America. However, if we do not choose to look back we should not be surprised if we find ourselves losing all the gains that our ancestors worked so hard to claim.


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downloadThere has been an idea in the United States going back to at least the 19th Century that if an individual works hard, they can move themselves out of poverty and up the economic ladder. These stories were popularized by writers such as Horatio Alger and became used as a justification for the inequalities that the capitalist system produces. Anyone could become wealthy and successful if they just tried hard enough.

There is no doubt that there have been cases where this has happened. There have been people who grow up in working class or poor families who become extremely wealthy. Andrew Carnegie was the best example of this back in the mid-1800s. However, what we need to realize is that these individuals are the extremely small exception to the rule. Most people born into wealth stay wealthy, and most people born into poverty stay poor. Those who do go from rags to riches usually had a brilliant streak of being at the right place at the right time, as hard work alone cannot account for the change.

This myth that if you work hard, you can become wealthy has always been overstated in the United States. It was exaggerated in the Gilded Age, and it is exaggerated now. In fact, among major developed nations, only the United Kingdom and Italy have less economic mobility than the United States. Any economic mobility we do have is almost exclusively because of public education, government college assistance, and programs to support low and middle-income families. Of course, these are programs that those on the right want to reduce or cut out completely.

While the rags to riches stories may be motivational, they are dangerous if they distort the true social realities and the extreme difficulties of economic mobility. They also can be damaging because they distract from a focus on building a better society to an individualistic dream of excessive wealth.  We do not need to hear more rags to riches stories; we need to see a society where all people are given real tools to succeed and where a nation’s success is shared by all not just a wealthy few.

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4I often have to catch myself from being too pessimistic when I think of the future. I automatically think of growing disparities of wealth, corporate takeover, and a growing police state. However, when I study history, I realize that every generation has had fear of the future.

During the Cold War, the fear was that the U.S. was going to soon be taken over by the Russians. I remember my mom telling me that when she was a young a famous TV Preacher stated with the confidence that the Soviets would be marching down the streets of Washington DC in a matter of years. Of course, that never happened, just like all the other doomsday scenarios that the Cold War brought with it.

During the Industrial Revolution that was a great fear by many. With the new technology what was human society going to be like? And yes..there have certainly been very bad consequences to society and the environment as a result of technological advances, but there have also been a lot of positive changes. The fact that I am sitting here in Costa Rica, writing a blog that people could read in every corner of the globe is a pretty big testament to many the advantages and blessings that technology has brought us.

We could also look at the fear during the cultural changes during the 60’s and 70’s. People were completely fearful of what it would lead to in society. Obviously, there have been negatives that have come of the cultural revolution; however, there have also been many positives and many people have freedom and rights that were completely suppressed in early times. Minorities have been given a voice, and some ideas such as nationalism have lost their edge.

Does this mean that we just not be concerned about the direction the world economy or the nation is going in? Of course not, there could be some very serious problems if we don’t make some major changes. However, that is the beauty of humanity. In the midst of problems, great solutions often come. Maybe we should have a healthy skepticism of the future; however, every once in a while let’s sit back and realize that perhaps that the future is not as scary as we think it is going to be. It will be very different, but it might not be all bad.

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7Wendell Berry once so wisely wrote, “Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.” Though that is the way society should work, there are many that are on the top of society who prefer the survival of the fittest model to be the way we run our world. Perhaps, it is not said that blatantly, but in the policies and rhetoric it comes out.

Essentially, this idea of taking Darwin’s ideas on evolution and applying them to human society is nothing new; this was a growing movement at the turn of the century both in the U.S. and Europe. The idea was that the weak should basically fend for themselves, and those on top are there because they deserve it. It was the justification given for the massive colonialism and domination of indigenous groups. At the end, Hitler took these ideas of Social Darwinism to their most extreme, and the theory was basically exposed for the evil it was.

No politician will blatantly say they are a Social Darwinist, but many hold to the majority of the beliefs of this system. It seen in the writings of right wing heroes like Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism, where selfishness is the highest morality. The poor are that way because of their own fault, and the wealthy and powerful are there because of their hard work. It can be seen in the current budget plan of Congressman Paul Ryan who basically want to shred the safety net to nothing, while making sure more wealth is funneled to the wealthy through large tax cuts.

It took people in the labor movement and progressive movements to stand up to the rise of Social Darwinism at the beginning of the century and make real reforms in the country, and I believe it will take another large scale movement to say that we are not animals. We do not operate by a system of the survival of the fittest. We are humans, and all people should be treated with dignity, care, justice, and equality.

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“They were always fighting for something the bastards and if anyone dared say the hell with fighting it’s all the same each war is like the other and nobody gets any good out of it why they hollered coward. If they weren’t fighting for liberty they were fighting for independence or democracy or freedom or decency or honor or their native land or something else that didn’t mean anything. The war was to make the world safe for democracy for the little countries for everybody. If the war was over now then the world must be all safe for democracy. Was it? And what kind of democracy? And how much? And whose?”

So wrote Dalton Trumbo in his famous anti-war book, Jonny Get Your Gun. The famous book was written after the horrible events of World War I. Before the war, many had forgotten how atrocious war really was, and many countries haphazardly entered the war without any real reason. After the war, those who fought realized that war was hell; it was something that should be avoided at all cost.

It seems that in many ways, we are living in the same era as those who were so quick and foolish to rush into the First World War. We have forgotten the horror of war. For one, most of so are removed from the actual conflict that we do not even have to worry about it. Foreign Middle Eastern civilians and unfortunate U.S. soldiers will have to experience the conflict, but not the average western citizen. So many support whatever new war effort because they see war as something heroic, purifying, or even righteous. They have never lived through war, so they have no problem supporting another one. They have forgotten the atrocities, evil, suffering, pain, and death that war brings both to those who it is inflicted on and those who are inflicting it, to both the victims and perpetrators.

As so many in the U.S. public blindly support another horrific war with Iran, a war that could be much bigger and far reaching than our previous wars with Afghanistan or Iraq, we should at least contemplate the horrors of war. Are we really willing to so nonchalantly enter another deadly conflict?

Simon Weil says it so perfectly,

“War perverts and destroys you. It pushes you closer and closer to your own annihilation—spiritual, emotional and finally physical. It destroys the continuity of life, tearing apart all systems—economic, social, environmental and political—that sustain us as human beings.”

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With the Oscars for 2011 over, there was one movie this past year which certainly should be honored, and more importantly discussed. The movie is called the Conspirator. It is a film by Robert Redford about the trial of Mary Surratt after the assassination of President Lincoln. However, it is far from a mere historical retelling; it is a timely story that cuts to the very heart of many of the issues we are dealing with today.

In the film, Redford paints Surratt as innocent of the crime she was convicted of, conspiring to kill Abraham Lincoln. While this is certainly an issue that is up for historical debate, that is not the essential point of the film. What is extremely relevant today was how the U.S. government wanted to find Surratt guilty and hang her, so they did. They refused to try her in civilian court, and instead put her in a military tribunal where her fate was sealed before the trial even began.

It is a story where the law of the land, the Constitution, is simply disregarded in a time of distress and conflict. The Bill of Rights with its guarantee to a fair trial by jury is exchanged for the will of Washington. It is amazing how we have done the same thing today, even though we do not even face a fraction of the turmoil, bloodshed, or danger they faced back then. It stands to reason that if was a real threat, today’s U.S. would turn into a complete police state in a matter of weeks, or even days.

If you have not seen the movie, I would highly suggest it. It is not only a well-directed and historically intriguing film; it is a film that we need to see today. In an era of Guantanamo Bay, indefinite detentions, and unlimited executive power, we need to wake up and realize that our own rights and values are slowly slipping away.

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download (1)In the U.S. it often seems that the Civil War is honored or even celebrated. For those who still hold onto the illusion of the Confederacy, it was a war of liberty and state’s rights. For most Americans, the Union cause is celebrated. Lincoln is seen as a hero for keeping the union together.

However, let’s take a look back at the deadly war. It was a horrid bloodbath where men from the same country were killing one another and in the end….for what? Yes, the war eventually was used as a tool to end slavery, but that certainly not the reason it was fought. It was fought over the right to secede vs. keeping the union together. Thousands upon thousands of men gave up their lives for whatever their sectionalist or nationalistic ideology was. Men who claimed themselves as part of the Christian faith were killing their own brothers in the faith.

In the end, like all wars, it was started for the rich and fought by the poor. Many northern business leaders would profit greatly from the Confederate States in the union for their commercial and trading interests, and the ones who would really benefit from a southern victory were a small group of elitist slave owners. On this point, it is the most disturbing of all. For the sake of a few wealthy slave owners, young southern men breathed their last breath and killed their fellow men.

The real problem is that when we obsess about wars in the past and honor their memory, we in a way sanctifying them. Instead of teaching the next generation about the awful and horrid nature of war, we justify it, saying that it was fought for a righteous cause.

As our national history is littered with one war after another and with more talk of another war with Iran on our way, we would do good to mourn our past wars, not honor them and sanctify them. We should mourn the fact whenever we choose war over peace, when we forced the young in the nation to go and kill and die. We should mourn and weep, and perhaps, we could actually find sanity and peace.

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