Sunday, 31 January 2010
Daniel Patrick Moynihan Hazard
In my youth I was a flaming youth!
Down with racism. Up with feminism. It was my redoubled rant. Slowly, my flames have guttered. But those nerves remain to be enlivened. After an innocent youth, I married at 23. A gorgeous, High IQ blonde, who gave me three children, who were complicated enough to keep me single for thirty years.
Then at age 73, living alone in Germany, with their language forgotten over fifty years, I took my daily English fix at Theatreplatz by ritually buying the daily International Herald Tribune. Gradually I began to notice the lady I greeted daily: GUTEN TAG! I found myself beguiled by her fluent English, a trait oddly ingrained in a DDR school! Chatter led to lunches, later and later, until they became “dates”.
Hildegard diminished into Hilly, and her clever solution of my daily problems as a unspeaking foreigner compensated for our age discrepancy, 73 to 33. And she wanted a baby more than her freedom. I had no fear of her ambition, because it turns out, I had had almost no experience of babies my first time around, except at meals and holidays, so given was I to get a Ph.D. and put a firm foot on the bottom rung of the academic ladder.
And no matter that my first wife wanted a doctorate as greedily as I. Feminism or not she got in line: we parted shortly after she got her doctorate in 1970. I covered my losses by chasing women and traveling, occasionally simultaneously.
I was in Weimar to study the idealism of the Bauhaus, punctuated by glorious samplings of European art and architecture in situ. More and more with Hilly. We turned to the USA in our travels, totally new to her, and enticing. Ending in San Francisco where my best bud a City Supervisor married us on the steps of City Hall! I planned a honeymoon on Southwest Airlines: Pittsburgh to Nashville to Memphis to New Orleans to Birmingham to Pittsburgh.
Alas, 9/11 psychosis intervened (we were wed a week later) so we flew straight back to Frankfurt and spent what they call a Flitterwoche in the Harz Mountains. Since I had ceremoniously vasectomized myself in 1976 to celebrate the bicentennial of Freedom, Hilly had to go in vitro: three strike outs in Weimar, one home run in Berlin. Daniel Patrick Moynihan Hazard duly arrived three days after Knut the most pampered polar bear in history on December 8, 2007.
We’ve been on a treadmill ever since! Hilly from nap to nappies in an endless cycle. Me watching. Only since have I understood the silent anguish of nursing mothers. I have yet to change a diaper. I’ve held only a few bottles in emergencies. I wash the dishes in penitence. I open the garage door as she drives Danny on her bike in the snow fifteen minutes away. I lock the garage door. She returns to fix my hot lunch—before going up the street to the Liszt Hochschule für Musik for a few of her ten hours a week as a librarian, scooting off at a quarter to three to bike Danny home. Feminism indeed.
I read to him in German and English. I watch animals with him on TV (the Germans coverage of their zoos is exemplary, making “Sesame Street” seem stilted and trying too hard). And tonight, Hilly returns to church choir practice, every Tuesday night, when I have to read him to sleep!
That is I why I suddenly find her slyly planning over her computer our next two vacations: two weeks with the relatives in June at the Baltic, one week in Talinn in July to feed my Jugendstil hunger. Getting away.
That is the latest feminist chant. With which I concur. Not flaming as of yore. But belatedly understanding why the first frau quit.
Saturday, 30 January 2010
Alas, in the light of today, from the outside, the Chattanooga Choo Choo is a tiny isle of glitz in a sea of derelict hotels and abandoned restaurants. Hilton surrendered its franchise; the hotel and convention complex went bankrupt last year. Their last best hope is that the new Holiday Inn franchise will snatch their Chattanooga chestnuts out of the fiscal fire. I hope they make it.
With determined euphoria, the courtly young man in charge of the hotel showed me the plushy Victorian bedroom in one of the Pullman cars that were the center of tourist attention when the "destination resort" opened in the 1970s. He let me peek into the "temporarily" shuttered "Dinner in the Diner" dining car, and I swallowed hard for old time's sake. It's going to be a cliffhanger.
Outside, you see signs telling you to drive left several blocks for a Days Inn, or right for a Best Western on Martin Luther King Boulevard (that poor martyr has more tacky streets named after him than any other folk hero I can think of). Market Street at the Choo Choo end is a visual shambles.
But walk up the main drag toward the Civic Forum at Tenth Street, where you can get all the tourist brochures for the city and the region you could ask for. The aggressive affability of the tourist promotion personnel gave me the impression they don't have many visiting journalists to spiel to.
Watch on your left for the handsome new headquarters for the TVA, a great social experiment whose flagging economic status makes you nervous too. There's an excellent Corten and aluminum mural on the 11th Street side.
And kitty-corner is the Bicentennial Library, where the second-floor local history room offers a lively and accessible collection of books on local architecture (including dam architecture, a genre that's big locally).
The center swatches of Market Street are "coming back," as they say hopefully. Miller Brothers' old department store is being recycled as Blue Cross offices. But beyond, it dinges up again. It so saddens me to see the perky commercial architecture of the late 1880s and beyond bedraggled, or--even worse--hoked up modernoidly.
In my continuing anthropological lark of getting shaved in every city and country of the world (before my beard dies), I dropped into the Barber College, where a charming student told me tartly that they don't shave with straight razors any more. "Would you-all want a student to use a straight razor on your pretty old face?"
Her matronly supervisor interposed with a more candid explanation: "We don't shave any more for fear of AIDS." The student, I'm sorry to report, didn't get my lame sally: "I don't mind a straight razor if the barber is straight."
Right around the corner from the Barber College is the new Regional History Museum, a recycled school building. It's not up to full speed yet, but the exhibits they were installing were definitely visitable: a medical history display, one on local radio history and a Vietnam Memorial exhibition.
The museum is mercifully free of kitsch and contains solid work like the News Press journalist John Wilson's substantive history of the city.
But the best reason for visiting Chattanooga is its Hunter Museum of Art. High on a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River, it is arguably the most beautifully sited museum in the United States. And its structural glory is an Albert Paley "Fence" joining the stately old mansion--the original Hunter--to its dynamic modern wing.
There is a splendid roof sculpture garden where Nature competes ruthlessly with Art for your undivided attention.
When I visited, there were two splendid exhibitions--one on paper sculpture from all over the country, the other on quilts and tufted bedspreads. The latter was curated by Bets Ramsey, a local quilter whose marvelous Josef Albers-like square miniquilt has been a joy to my eyes ever since I bought it in 1978 at her one-person show at the Hunter.
Her husband is the UT poet Paul Ramsey--so the two of them are a veritable TVA powerhouse for culture among choosier Chattanoogans.
Mrs. published a book on Tennessee quilts that's on sale in the excellent museum shop, where I bought my cat Tobey a stunning carved cat about to pounce from Indonesia. That's a long jump, but Tobey is not very cultivated yet.
Leave enough time for the stately house across the street. It houses the glass collection of a benignly obsessed woman who took the small profits from her downtown millinery store and invested them in antiques. I'm not big on glass, but that lady's eye was unimpeachable, and I delighted in traipsing in her tracks.
Take a taxi back to your point of departure. They're cheap. Mine had a sign saying the driver took nothing bigger than a $5, and his lush accent and gabby baedekering about the town were even better than a walk through the lovely old neighborhoods where the rich once lived.
I'm going back soon to take in all of the regional attractions you'd need a rented car to catch. The Choo Choo may be chuffing, but the town has a pace and a friendliness that I relished.
Reprinted from Welcomat - After Dark, Hazard at Large October 18, 1989
Friday, 29 January 2010
He, the son of Jewish immigrants in the poorest section of Brooklyn. She the only daughter of a working class Irish couple in Schenectady. He got turned on by Charles Dickens at 17. Young Communist neighbors encouraged him to join them at a political rally on Times Square. The police knocked him unconscious and he became “ferociously indignant.”
Returning as a bombardier from Europe, he had second thoughts about war, stashing his medals and ribbons. He worked blue collar as he earned degrees from New York University and Columbia. My guiding light, first son Michael, turned me on to his first classic, "A People’s History of the United States,” which he privately printed in an edition of 5,000 in 1980. An underground sensation in which "he charged Christopher Columbus and other explorers with genocide, picking apart presidents from Andrew Jackson to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and celebrating workers, feminists and war resisters,” (NPR, at Sam Smith, prorev.com, 1/27/10).
By 2003 his left wing version of American history had grossed over a million copies. In 1956 the black women’s Spelman College in Atlanta made him history chair. He stood behind the students when they integrated the Georgia Assembly as well as their public libraries—until the brass took away his tenure for being a perennial pest! He “graduated” to Boston University where he tried the patience of that perpetually hypersensitive president, John Silber.
Zinn had a quick eye to the end. For example, when Libs began to grumble about the Big Bailout, he recalled that the constitutional convention of 1787 had as its immediate agenda to redeem the speculators' bonds at full value! "Democracy," he reminded his readers, "grows from the bottom up, not vice versa."
Chum Noam Chomsky, not known for hyperlatives adjudged, “He’s made an amazing contribution to American intellectual and moral culture. He changed the conscience of America in a highly constructive way.”
So did Mary Daly, at the nearby Jesuit Boston College, the world’s first feminist philosopher—if you don’t include the eleventh century German nun Hildegard von Bingen. She was the first (1953) to get a Ph.D. in Religious Studies at Notre Dame, after which she gained Ph.D.’s in Switzerland in philosophy and theology. (Women could not enter such programs in the U.S. at the time.)
Her notoriety began with the publication of “Gyn/Ecology” (1978) where she explored such then hidden topics as cultural and sexual violence against women, female genital mutilation, and foot binding. In 1969 she riled the brass at Boston College with her book, "The Church and Second Sex” which exposed misogyny in the Roman Catholic Church. She was being denied tenure, until 1,500 male students took up her cause for four months.
She won! She created another firestorm in 1998 when she excluded males from a new course in feminist ethics! She like to lecture in hiking clothes and mocked her academic assailants as bore-ocrats afflicted with academentia! The Jebbies gladly took her retirement in 2001.
Let us pray that there are many young Zinns and Dalys ready to step forward and give some more backbone to those gutless time-servers who too often dominate faculties. R.I.P. (Rejoice in Provocations!)
Thursday, 28 January 2010
Sketch for the Portrait of Walt Whitman by Thomas Eakins
There is of course no greater human love than that for a teacher who turned you on to the good life.
Thanks to UD Library Dean Margaret Auer, I finally got a Chapel Hill obit of Charles Carroll Hollis (1911-99). No wonder he suppressed his "Charles", preferring his mother's middle name, Carroll. What is more, C.Carroll sounds higher class. But he never put on airs. I have a permanent image of him, halfway up the classroom, on the left against the windows, expatiating on a text in his outspread right hand.
I was surprised to learn he started at University of Detroit in 1938! And he parlayed his friendship with Charles Fineberg, a successful business man who was the finest Whitman collector in America, into a job at the Library of Congress. It surprised me to learn he was only there for two years (1961-63). He escalated to Louis Rubin's U of North Carolina.
I last ran into him at an MLA convention in 1963. He was clearly proud of his pet student who had parlayed his brand new Ph.D. in 1957 into a rapid rise from Penn asst. prof at Penn(1959), to assoc. prof at the U of Hawaii (1961) to full prof and chair at Arcadia U (1962). Our last "virtual" encounter, alas, was in 1983 when I reviewed his last book on Whitman in my new role as a cultural global eye--in the Santa Press Press Democrat. (A copy of that review is in the SRPD pieces Mary Mueller recently sent me.). He was puzzled but pleased at my describing his prose as "funky". No other review (I've written hundreds) has ever given me such pleasure.
Succumbing to instant nostalgia momentarily, it was he who triggered my lifelong interest in architecture. Salaries were miniscule as Detroit was eeking out of the Depression, so he had a summer job at the shop of the Detroit Golf Club to pay for his three sons.
We used to stop and kibitz with him on our way to Cranbrook where the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen and the Swedish sculptor Carl Milles were civilizing us Michigander barbarians! Through the good graces of George Booth, publisher of The Detroit News, and Albert Kahn, the genius autodidact architect who immigrated from Germany at age 11 in 1880.
It makes me silently weep at how Detroit destroyed itself by popular racism and managerial hubris.
Wednesday, 27 January 2010
Digging, from the BBC's "Seamus Heaney: A life in Pictures" broadcast 4/15/09
I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a historical novel as much as I did Thomas Flanagan’s The Tenants of Time, nor have my expectations been so sharply disappointed as in William Kennedy’s highly-touted Quinn’s Book.
Strangely, when read consecutively they throw some odd lights on my Hibernian heritage and the unending horrors of Belfast and the IRA.
I’ve been to Dublin several times and feel oddly unrelated to my gene pool there. Nursing mothers begging in the streets turned me off wholly on my last visit.
I’ve only been once to Belfast—in October 1967, to take some students to the Arts Festival, where it was dumb Irish luck to stumble on Seamus Heaney, graciously reading a chrestomathy of Northern Irish poets, many of them good enough, but wholly eclipsed when he concluded by doing a swatch of his own.
“Digging” is one of the great lyrics of our age—as clear as a mountain lake but at the same time as deep as his heritage. In short, I found I could take a lot of Heaney but not a whit of the country itself.
Flanagan’s novel helps me to understand why. Its frame is a cultivated Oxonian type doing local history on the famous failed uprising of 1867. The principals in that farce are a Fenian agent who has earned eclat—if not skill—in the American Civil War as a noncom, a schoolmaster, and the self-made lawyer who joins Parnell in the British Parliament and shares that philanderer’s fate.
The young lawyer’s attempts to reconstruct what happened in 1867 from the disadvantage point of 1904 are frustrated by the sentimental and mendacious ways the flop has been transformed through the alchemy of the patriotic ballad and into heroic victory.
The schoolmaster is trying to retrieve the region’s folklore during his retirement, the ex-MP is living out his shame in penurious seclusion, and the Fenian fanatic has blown himself up in one of his many impractical schemes to oust the British overlords.
I’ve heard time and again stories about the potato famine. In this novel, it is the helpless rage of the peasants as they watch their cattle and corn being shipped off to England in the midst of their impending famine. It’s as cool and heartless as Kampuchea. Yet why did efforts to free themselves founder for so long?
As I read him, Flanagan says those peasants were “tenants of time,” indentured to their own sentimental version of what their country was and could become. The silly sentimentalizing of 1867 and ballads sung beerily in the pubs added handcuffs of self-delusion to the whips of the British absentee landlords.
Reading Flanagan’s marvelous palimpsest (he keeps running over and over the same events, from slightly different perspectives, so that finally you have a three-dimensional sense of Ireland’s painful past two centuries) makes me comprehend why it took so long to free the Republic and why it might take almost as long to get it joined to the North.
The Sinn Fein agitator at a London rally on last night’s TV suggests how Flanagan’s analysis, alas, still holds. It’s the best long, slow read I’ve had since John Hershey’s novel on the frustrations of muscular Christianity in modernizing China.
And then there’s Kennedy’s Quinn Book, cresting on a wave of superlatizing feature stories about how he has saved Albany from oblivion, about how he’s done for the capital of the Empire State what Joyce did for the capital of the Emerald State.
I couldn’t be less convinced. And I’ll tell you what first turned me off. Teenage Quinn’s employer, a larger-than-life boat captain, is so potent (and priapic) that he literally fucks back into life the corpse of the demimondaine he has saved from a fate worse than a hell of chastity.
In the stately mansion where this bit of retrieval takes place (we’re saving Albany, remember?), the long-sexually-inactive mistress of the place is so moved by the captain’s balling of the dead that she starts to pleasure herself on the spot.
I have no idea what Kennedy is driving at here, other than to attract attention. It’s as callow (and as shallow) as a television grabber.
The leitmotif of the novel—which positioned it in my mind next to Flanagan’s—is the hatred the Irish had to suffer and endure in Albany before and after the Civil War.
The passages on the Draft riots and the Irish involvement in them ring fairly true, though even here the grisly reigns during the assassination of a Negro who has shown great courage and imagination in manning an Underground Railroad terminal. But overall you get the feeling that the “history” rests more in Kennedy’s imagination than in the archives.
Compared with Flanagan’s patient and low-key portrait of a society in a state of somnabulism, Kennedy’s version of Irish experience across the water is a cartoon full of garish strokes, not all convincing.
And I’m depressed by the cliffhanging romance that brings Quinn and his true child-love to bed in the closing sequence of the novel. Kennedy should take some lessons in subtlety about love scenes from Flanagan as well.
The more patient writer gets at the pressure-cooker power of sex repressed, evaded and avoided in Irish culture with a finesse that makes the initiatory coupling in Quinn’s book look like a barroom joke or a john graffito.
There’s no real hope in hype—neither in the life of a nation nor in the life of a writer. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the intermittent performances in Quinn’s Book. It’s just that Flanagan’s book is as solid as an oak table; Kennedy’s is a comic book by comparison, flimsy, and ramshackle.
--Hazard-at-large, Welcomat, May 24, 1989
Tuesday, 26 January 2010
The only signs of imminent disorder were the long lines in front of automated-teller machines and gasoline service stations where Cariocas (all of whose funds over $1,800 had been frozen without warning) were patiently trying to get the wherewithal to leave town over the Easter holidays. That, and the repeated warnings of our Grand Circle Tour guides to be very, very careful.
So careful that we shouldn't "risk" taking the cheap and frequent buses to go downtown. Well, when I'm faced with the choice of being a professional skinflint or a taxi taker, I line up for the bus. A half-hour later (and 12 cents poorer), I was schmoozing with the director of the Museum of Fine Arts structure with marvelously wrought interior banisters and parquet floors.
The most poignant detail was the new display by artists complaining about the horrendous cuts in funding as part of the new president's austerity program to wrestle the devastating inflation to the stock exchange floor. The museum's 19th- and 20th-Century holdings reflect a feisty interaction between Brazil and well-known European movements, so a long, leisurely visit should be at the top of any tourist's agenda.
The paintings and sculpture were nutritious enough, but the big surprise was the furniture. Brazil's richness as a garden of trees of almost infinite variety led to its fecundity as a source of home furnishings. (The latest giant in this field is Jose Caldos Zanine.)
The director turned me over to the curator of sculpture--who, when I told him I was from Philadelphia, couldn't stop talking about the late Robert C. Smith of the University of Pennsylvania, regarded in both Lisbon and Rio as the greatest historian and critic of Portuguese art in the 20th Century.
At the Penn library, a bibliography of over 400 items attests to Smith's energy. Alas, he committed suicide, so depressed was he by his beloved Portugal going socialist. Even more astonishing was the professor's obituary portrait in Portugal's leading art magazine--I must have seen the guy every day at the Faculty Club, and at American Studies meetings: His other specialty was Winterthur-era furniture.
The Smithophile curator took us to the History Museum that occupies a recycled armory. It was full of trivia and trash--as most such attics are--but two sections were riveting: the sugar culture analysis and a dazzling recreation of an industrial exposition, the prime object of which is a great Art Nouveau exhibition stand. Put this museum on your must-see list.
I'm usually not a big Scenic Attraction maven, but Rio has two attractions that almost deconverted me: Sugar Loaf and Corcovado (the Humpback). Even the horrible favellas look radiant from its heights. Save a few minutes to pay tribute to the engineer whose genius made this hairy ride possible and unscary.
And if you're into historical statuary, politely elude all those souvenir hawkers at the ground floor and wander over to see what the monumental stones and bronzes are commemorating. I don't think any other city in the world can compare with Rio on the Scenery Index.
Corcovado--which takes a leisurely half hour or so to get up to ascend--is a wonder of its own. I heard anecdotes of bag-whipper-offers who use the semi-stations on the way up and down to relieve wealthy-looking tourists of impedimenta. The statue of Christ which surmounts this highest point on the littoral is obscured at the moment with scaffolding (it didn't make me homesick for City Hall!), but its grand Deco silhouette is still unmistakable--and moving, even to this disbeliever.
The only other don't-miss for me is the modernistic Catholic Cathedral. In its physics it recalls its San Francisco ecclesiastical cousin, although in metaphysics its grand ceiling-to-floor stained glass essays belong in another, higher league--with Chartres.
And as you blinky, blinky on your way back to the tour bus, take a gander at the great Babylon of a hanging-garden skyscraper across the way. That greenery is the work of Burle Marx, the Lawrence Halprin of Brazil.
He's also the great eye who crafted the best beauties of Copa and Ipanema--those marvelous black-and-white mosaic pedestrian walks. (The great disappointment of my visit was finding that Ipanema was Cellulite Canyon; somehow the much-vaunted dental-floss bikinis don't show well on galloping grandmas.)
Speaking of taste, the eating was great: sit-down barbecues where the slices of beef and cool cool beer send your taste buds into semi-shock from the excessive thrills of it. My last afternoon I spent cruising Copa for souvenirs. Beautifully-designed T-shirts turns out to be smallish dresses to cover up dental-floss bikinis. (I have my daughter to thank for that thank-you insight.) The beach towels are in the liveliest Carioca design, and far from Copa we use them as bath mats.
There's a lot of junk mixed in with the design treasures, but it's a kick to cull and haggle anyway. It's my schtick to get shaved at least once wherever I travel. My Rio barber was gifted with both steel and palm. But the Carioca touch that I relished most was his proffering a tiny paper cup of hot black coffee to top off my half hour on his spinning throne. It was the nicest single touch during my week in that Capital of Contradictions.
Reprinted from Welcomat, August 21, 1991
Monday, 25 January 2010
First semester: The European Roots. (In this introduction America as the beneficiary of the excess intellectual and economic energies of Europe, which could develop free from the rigidities of the ancien regime, would be studied.)
Second Semester: The Two Americas—North and South. (This would explore “the road not taken” by South America. It would be a comparative study of how Europe’s memory represented by Spain and Portugal created the cultures south of our border, while the North American development was going in a new direction based on northern Europe’s dreams.)
Third Semester: America and Africa. (This would study the differential acculturation of African immigrants to the Caribbean and to southern United States and the adjustment of the African Negro to the plantation economy and later dispersal through urbanization. This would examine historically the most destructive dilemma now facing American civilization.)
Fourth Semester: America and Asia. (This would examine the first contacts between America and Asia, the Chinoiserie imports of eighteenth-century New England ship captains and the interaction with Asians of the nineteenth-century missionaries. It would concentrate on changing American images of Asia from the stereotypes of Charlie Chan movies to the managed images of today’s Red and Free Chinese.)
Fifth Semester: America and Russia. (This would explore the Cold War’s tensions at a high intellectual level, with particular emphasis on the uncommitted two-thirds of the world’s unwillingness to accept either Russian or American ideology as the only ways of orgnanizing human behavior.)
Sixth Semester: America Today. (This would be an analysis of the qualitative revolution now under way in America.)
Seventh and Eighth Semesters: These would be devoted to original research designs submitted by seniors in consultation with their advisers. I can already hear the charges of Utopianism reverberating dully throughout committee rooms. And it may very well be that some no longer have the will or the way to respond freshly to the challenge of events. This perhaps is the most discouraging part of America as an ancien regime: the really shocking timidity and time-serving that keeps American Studies and other humanistic enterprises from fulfilling their potential.
The internecine warfare that characterizes most college communities may not permit the creation of an idea American Studies curriculum; the college is not the best place to introduce innovations in curriculum today. The National Broadcasting Company, and later the Columbia Broadcasting System, have shown with “Continental Classroom,” “Sunrise Semester,” and other videotaped courses how to create a “national university.” This dream of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams may actually come into being through the newest and “most vulgar” medium in American mass communication. TV makes a national democratic university possible and practical.
If we were to have the boldness to create a really new American Studies, rather than a jerry-built accommodation to insecure disciplines, we might then go on to learn that our fear of eloquence in the newer media is the second most debilitating influence in our academic endeavor. What is needed is a wholesale redefinition of our concept of publication. Most of us know that much of what passes for scholarship is so dull and irrelevant that it is a blessing that it remains mercifully unknown in the vast wasteland of academic quarterlies.
I would say that we ought to publish more of our results in photojournalistic, filmic, and broadcasting forms to test the relevance of what we are researching. If what we are digging up cannot be made significant to the general audience, perhaps it shouldn’t be dug up. I look forward to the day when graduate schools will approve of a student’s presenting his thesis in an hour-long documentary. The research done behind television series such as “The Twentieth Century” and “Project XX” no longer makes it possible for academicians to dismiss the world of popular culture as beneath contempt. It would be liberating for us if we were to train ourselves in one or more of the newer media, not simply to be eloquent, although that is no mean ambition, but to meet the responsibility of putting what we learn into circulation.
By leaving North America I discovered that I did not really understand the unique characteristics of American civilization; its so-called bread and butter institutions, political stability and economic development, social intercourse. I was forced to explain them to Asians who come to American institutions with an entirely different set of expectations from ours. They forced me to see the excessively esthetic bias of the Aemrican Studies Movement. This bias can be understood historically, as I have tried to show in a brief summary of John Adams’s theory of American growth, the Sydney Smith’s sneer heard round the world, and the De Crevecoeur-Turner concept of the American as that new Adam.
Such an intellectual self-analysis indicates that America is an underdeveloped area, imaginatively and intellectually, oblivious of much of the significance of its past, and therefore unable to comprehend what is happening in the present, let alone establish a sound policy for the future. The only way to continue our revolution is to complement the already largely achieved quantitative one with a qualitative revolution: one concerned with the quality of American life. We would not only save ourselves much boredome and frustration, but would also have much greater intellectual and imaginative resources to aid those other countries who want to modernize—not necessarily in the way we have, nor at the same cost. The American Studies Movement is not too surprisingly a victim of some of the same assumptions that inhibit the maturing of the larger American society. Even if we expect “saving remnants” to be perfected, or at least perfectible, it should not astonish us that we are not perfect. Were we to commit the same energy to a criticism of our own discipline that we currently devote to criticizing the social sciences, we might be less confused than we now are.
That is why I have outlined, in bare detail, an archetypal American Studies curriculum that is more than a pragmatic attempt to resuscitate literary history or to enliven social and cultural hsitory. Beyond the admittedly difficult problem of studying mass production and mass communication, and publishing these new subjects in new ways through photojournalism, motion pictures, radio and television, I would say we must commit ourselves in a most energetic manner to the problems of public school reforms. There is a Chinese proverb: “You can’t carve rotten wood.” Our society will not achieve its needed qualitative revolution until our public schools, particularly the high schools, have humanities programs that are superlative in concept and execution. The simplest thing one can say about our stewardship is that for the most part the professoriate has completely neglected this responsibility. We now reap the results of that intellectual abandonment.
I think we need to be reminded, with respect to the “two cultures” controversy, that in America scientists have been much more humane and civilized than we with respect to their responsibilities in public schools and going on to mathematics, American scientific specialists have accepted the challenge of new knowledge and the possibilities of new forms of publication. They are making science ever more attractive, more sound and significant, to the high school student today. If for no other reason than self-protection (and surely there are better reasons than this), we must do for the high school curriculum what the scientists have already done for their sectors of that curriculum. The growing gap of disaffection between the humanities and the sciences will become even more ominous unless we concentrate on secondary schools. Here is a grass roots problem that no one can ignore.
For many years methodology has been held in contempt by some “intellectuals” and academic people. More and more people are coming to see that this whole matter is neither amusing nor irrelevant. With all their shortcomings and dilemmas, teachers in American Studies have been willing to talk of methodology, integration, and synthesis. Perhaps we are still an underdeveloped academic segment, paralyzed by just and unjust fears in the special world in which we must operate. But, since these are the times that try our souls, let us not be sunshine patriots. Our fight is well worth waging, and winning.
Sunday, 24 January 2010
Meanwhile, our new institutions such as television drama, advertising graphics and photo journalism have achieved substantial bodies of significant material that has not been recorded, let alone analyzed and criticized. Mass communication, for all practical purposes and in spite of the pioneering work of men like Gilbert Seldes, is terra incognita. We keep shuffling a worn deck of minor nineteenth-century literary while Saul Bass and his peers have never even entered our minds, let alone our curricula. We busy ourselves with huge projects on the collected papers of every old president; yet our ignorance about the achivement of photojournalism remains abysmal.
A related area of darkest ignorance is mass production. Despite seminal work (Like John Kouwenhoven’s Made in America) the tradition of vernacular art remains something one must stumble upon. Our contention that humanists are helping students see life whole and see it steadily is a travesty. Contemporary industrial civilization is a life almost totally unexamined in our humanistic curricula, slighting the whole area of how automation and mechanization have transformed our environment.
These are not things that should be admitted grudgingly into the curriculum in one final lecture. They ought to be the very warp and woof of our intellectual concern. Sydney Smith’s sneer has had devastating effects; it has taken the limited resources we have had available and whipped up enthusiasm for appreciating or creating the elite arts of Europe, when we should have been concentrating on civilizing the new institutions of mass communication and mass production in industrial America. That remains our central task.
Why have so many obviously intelligent men so misallocated scarce energies? The only explanation I would have is what might be called the new Adam tradition. De Crevecoeur exulted in “this new man, the American” as he toured the post-revolutionary Atlantic seaboard of small but sturdy yeoman farmers. Later Frederick Jackson Turner closed the book on American character development, at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. Four hundred years after Columbus discovered America, Turner discovered that America was no longer a “new land” and shuddered at the disintegrative possibilities. Thinking of the 1893 “Great White City” as a form of architectural escapism from the brutal realities of the Chciago stockyards, we may begin to comprehend why professional humanists and laymen Americans alike have not grasped the meaning of their own urbanization.
The hard fact is that America is no longer an Eden. It is an ancien regime. Not the ancien regime of eighteenth-century France, with its rigidities of class, established church, and royalty, but ancien regime nevertheless. It is long past time for us to look at how the very virtues of the democratic experiment have become its characteristic vices. Like the eighteenth-century ancien regime, ours too is one of complacent privilege, more widely diffused privilege admittedly; but also with medians of responsibility significantly lower than those of the best European aristocracies.
Equality, liberty, and fraternity parodied become rigidities of the mind, much more difficult to overcome than mere property ownership. Egalitarianism, for example, has led to the fear of the superlative, to rationales about giving the public anything it wants, anything it can be made to crave. Liberty has declined into contempt for order and discipline. Everyman’s flipping his expended beer can onto nature becomes a paradigm of democratic man following his own collective whims. The wantonness, multiplied throughout the entire range of daily activities, poisons the very atmosphere.
Fraternity has deteriorated into the packaging of amiability. Toothy clowns, like Jack Bailey, promise those who have not fulfilled their dreams that they can at least be “queen for a day.” This is a marginal consolation prize indeed when one looks at the ex parte rationalizations that big capital, big labor, big agriculture, and the big middle give for their various impediments to fulfilling the American dream of opportunity. For all, one gets an oppressive sense of the inertia of the middle class as an ancien regime. These fat cats of mass America, satisfied with the height they’ve been able to reach, are ill-prepared to fulfill the American dream of a qualitative revolution in which excellence will be the keynote.
What the American Studies Movement ought to be doing domestically is preparing the way for such an intellectual revolution instead of wishing ti were really as respectable as the literary scholars or as scientifically sophisticated as atomic physicists. A book like that edited by Daniel Lerner, The Human Meaning of the Social Sciences, is more humanistic, though written by social scientists, than most of what we write. Lerner and Lasswell have elsewhere established their definition of what they call the policy sciences; that is to say, objective knowledge that clarifies decision making in politics, economic, and social relations. The humanities ought to assume a somewhat analogous role with respect to establishing the quality of American life.
Most American Studies curricula have been patchwork affairs reflecting the prior commitment of their planners either to history or literature. American Studies seems like an easy way to pull our methodological chestnuts out of the fire. But the anthropologist’s culture concept can be no better than the materials it has been using to organize or the sensibilities of the organizers. We must look afresh at the American Studies curriculum. It ought to be more than just a way to put literature into context or give esthetic richness to history.
Saturday, 23 January 2010
Edited by Marshall W. Fishwick
Houghton Mifflin Company Boston
America as an Underdeveloped Nation
My title is not meant to conceal a trick, but to reveal a truth. The United States, which spends millions to help “underdeveloped nations” is herself, in important respects, immature. The paradox became apparent when I served as the first Director of the Institute of American Studies at the East-West Center for Technical and Cultural Exchange at the University of Hawaii. An old pedagogical saw holds that one never understands a novel until he tries to teach it. I found out that the principle is even truer applied to one’s own country.
Our real weakness is that we don’t know what America means in human history. We have not developed a deep or broad historical understanding, having enlarged our know-how much more fully than our know-why. This imbalance is crippling us. It could destroy us. Too many Americans have highly idealized, essentially nostalgic images of what has happened in the course of American history. This naïve innocence is our single most debilitating influence in helping the world modernize. Why?
At the East-West Center a most interesting discovery was that the Asian grantees were greatly frustrated by the American grantees’ superficial understanding of American institutions and traditions. Asian students know much more about their cultures than we do about ours. Though deplorable, this is due to several factors. American grantees are younger. But theoretically we are the best informed nation in the world. What this cliché really means is that Americans are bombarded by more and diverse messages than any other nationals. It may also mean that our minds are the most cluttered and the least coherent. Information does not necessarily lead to wisdom. Indeed, sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton have argued, in their theory of narcotizing dysfunction, that a surfeit of knowledge tends to paralyze people as information intake becomes a substitute for outgoing decision.
American ignorance of the enduring values in life also stems from their enthronement of the entertainer over the past generation. We all know the most intimate details of Bing Crosby’s family; but did we read the Federalist papers? We all recall Bob Hope’s latest gag, but how many of us here have re-read Emerson lately? We all know who Elvis Presley is (or was, already), down to the last wiggle, but how many have heard of Philip Booth, one of the finest contemporary poets America has produced?
In a pre-industrial, tradition-ruled society an individual needs little sense of history to become empathetic enough to sustain change. Tradition is the best guide because generations have been through the same experiences. In a modernizing society, not even father can always be counted on to know best. Unprecedented conditions confront everyone with equal freshness. Tradition not only often doesn’t work well; it can be a positive impediment to a rational solution of difficulties. Experience must replace tradition as a guide to behavior.
History in our kind of society is not a luxury but a necessity. In totalitarian societies ancestor worship may do; but not in a society where men are free to choose their own styles of life. A sophisticated awareness of the past prepares one for the uncertainties that are the only certain thing in our world today. Keep the majority from achieving this kind of self-understanding, and you deprive a formidably complex machine of most of its lubricants. Today many Americans do not have a valid sense of where they have come from. This lack is the most serious challenge facing our historians today.
Deprived of the resilience a mature historical sense would provide, we seem destined at the moment to become another kind of ancien regime. Big labor, big capital, and big agriculture and a complacent middle class seem content in the cocoon of suburbia—willing to ignore deteriorating conditions of urban life and unwilling to internationalize abundance fast enough to abort the appeal of competing totalitarian systems. It is when one measures the depth and breadth of our historical awareness that he sees that we may indeed be an underdeveloped nation.
One deep-seated reason for ignorance of our past and its living traditions is that America is a future-centered country. We know too little about our past partly because many came to America to get away from an oppressive or stultifying past—whether it was the rigidity of a fixed class position, the affront to conscience of an established church, or the frustrating conscription into a noble’s private wars. America, the poet Archibald MacLeish reminds us, was promises. We came to make history, not to revere it. That is a sense in which Henry Ford’s pronouncement about history’s being bunk is true. One has to be free of the burden of the past to create a River Rouge. By the same token, you inevitably end up wallowing in the nostalgic irrelevance of Greenfield Village if you have a shallow sense of your country’s past.
A defective sense of the past is endemic in our country. Instead of making our people more resilient to the stresses of accelerating social change as choice replaces tradition in the full modernized society, popular history is a psychological safety valve for escaping into some Golden Age. Instead of insight into the future’s complexities, instant nostalgia pretends to revere a past that never existed. It provides the patriotically lazy, say, with the easy alternative of visiting attractive Sylvan Valley Forge instead of accepting, as Peace Corps volunteers do, the contemporary equivalent of no shoes in the snow. The summer soldier of today apotheosizes Founding Fathers instead of flattering them with substantial imitation of their own virtues in new circumstances. These, after all, are the times that try men who still know they have souls. Only the sunshine patriots are Pollyannas enough to hope the fighting is long since over.
Why has our revolution stalled? Precisely because we have so inadequate a sense of national past. Asian, African, and Latin American countries are displaying the same sense of over-compensated inferiority complexes that we showed towards European aristocratic travelers who came to America to reassure themselves that our democratic experiment wouldn’t work—they hoped! For if it did, they would have to change their status quo in Europe as the American good news spread among their peoples. Americans who don’t “understand” the neutralism of Nehru and Sukarno have forgotten George Washington’s Farewell Address as well as the Monroe Doctrine.
There are other ways in which it would be easy for us to sympathize with the “new” underdeveloped nations since we so recently threw over colonialism ourselves. Take Brasilia, for example. Americans grumble about all that elegance the economically strapped Brazilians are erecting in the middle of forest hundreds of miles from centers of population. Does it sound familiar? It should. Washington City was founded in a swamp in the early 1800s for precisely the same reasons: to give a new country some architecture to live up to in spite of the fact that economically we couldn’t afford it at the time. The truth probably is that psychologically we new Americans probably couldn’t afford not to aspire to such compensating elegance given the gap between our ideas and reality. Or take the tendency of every country to want its own airline. I’m less sympathetic with this penchant for global public relations; but American history has an important lesson on this score too.
John Adams reacted in an interesting way to the smug comments of European aristocrats about how little culture Americans had when he was president. He said it was the responsibility of his generation to insure the political stability of the United States (and how enduringly those architects of our constitution did build). Andrew Jackson followed John Quincy Adams as president in 1828, announcing to the world with every muddy western boot that followed his Tennessean footsteps into the White House that there could be no turning back politically. Property, literacy, and sex qualifications would eventually be abolished—as they almost are in America today with the exception of the Southern Negro.
Adams thought it would be the responsibility of the next generation to insure economic growth—and Charles Francis Adams, a generation or two late by his forbear’s schedule, was a railroad tycoon. Charles’s brother Henry was the original alienated American intellectual, with qualities literally too fine to be of use in that shoddy post-Civil War era. This brings us to the third phase in John Adams’s prophecy. Once politics and economics matured, culture would flourish. He predicted that his grandsons would reap the artistic harvest from the careful political and economical cultivation at the grass roots that the two generations preceding had taken care of. That cultural revolution is now transforming America.
I want to relate the problems of the cultural revolution to our policies towards the underdeveloped countries. American intellectuals have suffered from a cultural inferiority complex ever since Sydney Smith made his insulting sneer heard round the world about who ever read an American book, or saw an American play, or gave a hoot and a holler about American culture with a capital “C.” For a century we’ve been trying to mass produce artists to keep Europe from laughing at us.
When we try to understand why Asian students are not interested in the arts of America but in the small “a” arts of agriculture, politics, and economic development, John Adams’s model of how a society develops becomes most helpful to us. Asians are in the earliest stages of his model of how a society matures. Literally and figuratively, the Institute of American Studies movement had to reorient itself to the needs of Asia, Africa, and Latin America; as indeed I believe the American Studies movement on the mainland United States must do and as all of us in America ought to do if we are to revitalize our revolution.
Carl Rowan, then in the State Department and now the U.S. Minister in Finland, made a brilliant speech at the University of Washington’s Communication Week held as part of the Seattle World’s Fair. What we do at home, he said, is more important thant what we pretend to be abroad. If we can’t meet our own racial, industrial, and social problems in a humane way, all our libraries, jazz combos, and international road shows will avail us little. Instead, our own headlines will undermine our pretense.
Friday, 22 January 2010
My first visit was in 1982, when I was researching an article on major American Art Deco buildings. The state capitol is one such--Bayou Deco if you will--with pelicans (the state bird) and other local exotica garnishing the tall structure (it was Huey Long's ambition to out-topple the Nebraska state capitol in Lincoln).
In the formal gardens that front the tall edifice stands a statue of HL with one hand extended--whether symbolizing his pre-assassination scratching or his posthumous legacy of very bad political habits is hard to determine.
I shall never forget the low that followed my architectural high that Sunday. When I called my son in St. Paul, he informed me that my mother had died that morning in Detroit.
On my next visit, the Louisiana Folklife Commission was staging its annual fair, and I stuffed myself with Cajun food and schmoozed with the craftier ones. A folk carver from Homer, Louisiana, was displaying the most elegant cache of his canes, one of which I gave temporary custody of to my son Michael with the admonition to return it to me when I seemed to need it.
There is also a tasty display of the whole range of the state's folk art in the basement of the capitol--when I discovered when I was waiting to get to interview David Duke, who had just joined the legislature.
That was an experience. First I was frisked for weapons by a portly man who could have walked right of the pages of All the King's Men. Legislators don't have offices, and you have to forward a message asking for an audience. Duke had the last desk in the assembly at the extreme right rear, next to the entrance, sort of symbolizing his marginality among many members.
He is an extremely good-looking man, tall and courtly (a dead ringer for Atlanta's Ted Turner), and dressed in a plaid sports coat as distant in tone from a KKK costume as possible.
He is also very articulate: The majority of Louisiana voters, he began, are tired of carrying unproductive welfare types on their backs. In Louisiana's troubled economy, they also find affirmative action unfair to non-minorities.
He was having no trouble finding members of the legislature willing to form coalitions to deal with the Metairie voters who elected him.
My impression is that it's a waste to keep reminding Duke of his nutty Nazi past. Or to imply that it is un-American to form a group like the National Association for the Advancement of White People. The Klan knows from losing its headquarters in Tuscaloosa that violence will backlash on itself.
Duke is not dangerous. It is better to have him in the open, engaging in public dialogue about the griefs of his constituents.
I'm more concerned about Governor Buddy Roemer's changes to reform the state's finances. I had lunch with one of the auditors of his new oversight department, headed by a New Orleans newspaperman with a reputation for tracking down boodlers. It's a Sisyphean ordeal.
The city is making respectable attempts to change that outlook. Take the current exhibition at the Louisiana Arts and Science Center, a marvelously recycled railroad station along the Mississippi River at the foot of downtown.
"Who'd A Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quiltmaking" is a loan show from the San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum, presenting the Oakland, California, collection of Eli Leon. (World Ward II created a diaspora of blacks from the South seeking war work in the Bay Area.)
The tradition of Southern black quilt making has, to my eye, two salient characteristics--asymmetry and marvelously strange color combinations. I first delighted in this folk tradition when I discovered the work of Pecolia Warner of Yazoo City, Mississippi, at Judy Peiser's Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis. My favorite Pecolia is a bear claw in the most extraordinary colors of lime green and orange.
In the LASC exhibition, look at Georgian Charles Cater (yes, Virginia, black men make quilts--when they're lucky enough to have a gifted grandmother tutor) for a fine example of asymmetry, and Arkansan Emma Hall's Double Ring for the exuberant color schemes black quilters are very very good at.
If you can't get to Baton Rouge before the show ends (Sept. 3), at least send for the marvelous catalog (LASC, P.O. Box 3373, Baton Rouge, LA 70821, (504) 344-9463).
Baton Rouge is only a few hours drive from--and less touristy than--New Orleans. Louisiana State University is a brisk half-hour walk from downtown, and I've always found that greatest achievement of Huey Long worth a visit in itself.
from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, August 23, 1989
Thursday, 21 January 2010
Sister Felicia was a great blessing for me when my mother placed me in Holy Rosary so she could teach and support my brother and me.
I was only three in 1930, but fifty years later I made a surprise visit to her in Grand Rapids. When she learned who I was, she exclaimed, "PAT HAZARD! YOU'RE THE BEST STUDENT I EVER HAD!"
Then she went out into the corridor and exulted. "PAT HAZARD HAS COME TO VISIT ME!"
You can imagine how I relished that proudest day of my life.
Here is her obituary.
Entered eternal life on September 11, 1986 at the age of 90 after 71 years of religious life
Mass of Christian Burial Monday, September 15, 1986 at 4:15 p.m.
in Dominican Chapel/Marywood
Vigil Service: Sunday, 7:00 p.m.
We commend Sister Felicia to your prayers.
Ninety years of life ended for Sister Felicia Bayer on Thursday, September 11.
It was the eve of her entrance anniversary. On September 12, 1914 she left her home to become a Dominican Sister. At 10:45 on Thursday night she left her earthly home for an eternal one with her God.
Mary Catherine Bayer was born on March 29, 1896, the daughter of Henry and Margaret Bayer of St. Alphonsus Parish in Grand Rapids. The joy at her birth was short-lived. From her autobiography we learn: "When God bestowed the light of day upon me, He demanded my mother's soul. In retrospect I see that from the beginning of my life suffering was present. I believe it was my special gift from God."
She and her brother Henry were cared for by an aunt until Mr. Bayer remarried a woman Sister Felicia described as "the dearest mother I ever knew". As the years went by the family grew; two brothers and two sisters joined Mary and Henry. Life was good. But when the future Sister Felicia reached her teens a hardship came to the Bayer household. To use Sister's own words: "God demanded a great sacrifice. He took my dear father and it became necessary for me to assist in supporting the family."
As her family responsibilities increased she experienced "an inward calling". Suffering and sacrifice had drawn her closer to her Savior, strengthening her faith. The Dominican Sisters had been her teachers, her friends and her inspiration during her years of schooling at St. Alphonsus. She believed the inward calling was to a life with them. Knowing of her intentions the family did not stand in her way. Thus in the fall of 1914 she left home for the Dominican Motherhouse on Leonard Street which was a very familiar place in a very familiar neighborhood.
On Reception Day, April 6, 1915, Mary Catherine Bayer was given the name Sister Felicia of St. Dominic. Hers was the last group to be received into the congregation during Mother Aquinata's lifetime. Mother died less than a month following the ceremony.
At the completion of her novitiate, Sister Felicia was assigned to Byron Center where she taught school music and played the organ in the parish church. During this time the Lord again asked a sacrifice of her. She received word that her mother was terminally ill. At her death a short while later, Sister, ever solicitous for the well-being of her brothers and sisters, thought she would have to return home. Of this particular trial she wrote:
"It was a suffering and a genuine test. Amid my anguish I turned to God in prayer and without any help from me He cared for them! They all became happily situated in life and I was able to remain a Dominican."
She did not, however, remain a music teacher. While never losing her love for music, Sister chose to teach "the little ones" and the primary grades became her specialty. Approximately forty of her years in the ministry of education were divided between Holy Rosary Academy, Bay City and Marywood Academy, Grand Rapids. Her classroom bespoke a teacher who cared for and loved her students, and the students immediately responded to the love and care. In addition to the basics Sister Felicia taught the fine arts. Song and dance and "primary dramatics" had a place in the daily schedule. Many of Sister's now grown-up students must remember the countless times for countless audiences they recreated the universe in first grade fashion dramatizing the story of creation with great skill.
This diligent educator's efforts were neither unappreciated nor unnoticed by the parents of those she taught. A letter Sister's principal received from a grateful family attests to this: "....we have been impressed by the remarkable person of Sister Felicia. She is held in high esteem by us and by the parents of first graders whom we have met. Because of Sister's understanding of children and education our son has a love for his God, respects and appreciates many facets of the world around him and is ready educationally to meet next year. Sister's patience is limitless and her thoroughness in her work has been laudatory. We want you to know of our gratitude."
Sister Felicia's creative and generous spirit was not limited to her own classroom and students. Despite the fact that she suffered from poor health much of her life she did, nevertheless, extend herself to others. Decorations she designed for special seasons were duplicated for other teachers.
Crocheting and knitting for others was a long-standing hobby. During her years on the Marywood Academy faculty she often gave assistance to Sister Reparata Gauthier whose convent room was next to hers. Because this was so Sister had frequent conversations with Sister Reparata, reverencing her words as spiritual riches, a blessing from the God who was her strength and consolation.
The God who was Sister Felicia's strength during her years of active ministry was also her strength when those years were completed. After three years tutoring children at St. Andrew's School, Sister retired to the House of Studies. She had been a teacher for 56 years, and did, indeed, miss the classroom environment, but she welcomed the "quieter life" and enjoyed the "contemplative leisure" the House of Studies afforded her. In 1979 she moved to Aquinata Hall. A diabetic condition weakened her considerably and a new suffering was limited activity. It was a special hardship for one whose memories were of busy school years, energetic "little people", creative dramatics, giggling first-graders, dancing feet, a gracious God and a loving Dominican community.
Our memories of Sister Felicia stay with us while hers went with her into eternity where with all the faithful she is surely saying: "How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord, our God." We rejoice that new life in God's presence is hers!
Sister Felicia is survived by two brothers: William (Ellen) Bayer of Ft.Meyers Beach, FL and Lawrence (Anne) Bayer of New Era, MI.
Wednesday, 20 January 2010
Other imaginative American industrialists are throwing their newts and toads into this bubbling cauldron of inane and enervating agitation. A Ravenna, Ohio, firm has a balloon in the works. Walgreen Drug Stores will soon dispense a Sputnik bubble gum. But all is not right in this best of all possible worlds of play. A Chicago toy manufacturer opines that there is considerable consumer resentment of the man-made star as Russian; such consumer resentment can lead to consumer resistance.
Comments a thoughtful account executive for a Chicago ad agency: “If the United States had launched it first, the response would have over-shadowed Davy Crockett.” As a matter of fact, the manufacturers of play suits are puzzled by the sticky space-suit market; it seems cowboy get-ups, thanks to TV, move much faster. Perhaps, after all, cosmopolitan spacemen are un-American, at least compared with their horse-borne ancestors.
There are other matters for Doctor Pangloss to explain. International Business Machines, which had contracted to sponsor a live TV pickup of this country’s satellite launching, has reneged. It doesn’t take an electronic brain to see how awkward it would be to hitch a corporate wagon to a second-rate star. And Andrew L. Stone glumly junked plans for The Guided Missiles, a documentary to be made at White Sands, N.M., into which he had put months of preparation.
Stone was bitter about the Navy’s getting the satellite program when the Army was so much more advanced. “While in the Pentagon,” Stone harrumphed, “I told the top boys there, that if we didn’t hurry with our missile program, the Russians would beat us. To which they replied . . . ‘We’re not in a satellite race with any country.’’’ When, in The Nation technical consultations with the Army, he found that a crash program could have launched a satellite with in a ninety-day period at a cost of around $1,500,000.
No wonder the gimmick-happy American producer is grateful to the Russian-financed Sputnik; it saves him money. Even the brilliantly executed news coverage of Sputnik reveals the enormous anti-intellectual potential built into our way of life. The aim of the mass media is to get there the firstest with the leastest. Scoop replaces scope. When a system of information careens from one spectacular tragedy to another tragic spectacle, it is in an increasingly difficult position to attract attention; readers and viewers have to be shaken out of a media-induced daze for something really important.
Specifically, Queen Elizabeth provided us with a royally meaningless transition from the national black eye of Little Rock to Sputnik’s international challenge to our technological leadership.
As sober and responsible a magazine as Newsweek succumbed to the hysteria by launching almost overnight a new department, “Space and the Atom,” proudly billed as “the first in any magazine.” “Like it or not,” the publisher pontificated, ‘The fate of every one of us is inextricably bound up with the development of space travel and atomic energy. . . .You will find this new department invaluable in stimulating your thinking about the significance of our atomic future and man’s exciting step-by-step venture into outer space.”
The force of Sputnik’s shock to even the intelligent American is visible in these purple passages emerging from Newsweek’s usual gray columns. But surely the magazine’s intellectual function is to anticipate soberly, but not to panic into a new department that feeds the very hysteria it claims to dispel. Space and the atom and technology and science have been that important for ten years, but each week a publisher must look for new ways to build circulation in a culture screaming with hucksters’ calls.
It is all right for journalists to be constantly racing press deadlines, but when they begin to share their professional headaches with their readers, they give the nation a continuous case of ideological jitters. To use the phrase of that musical master of useless agitation, this kind of informational diet leaves us “All Shook U.” And it is a sorrow to report that the dean of the nation’s leading graduate school of journalism solemnly saluted Newsweek for its grandstanding: “I was truly proud of Newsweek this week,” wrote Dean Edward W. Barrett of Columbia. “You showed superb alertness on Sputnik;” The magazine’s new department, regardless of its merits, simply underscores the fact that “moving fast” has become an end in itself on all levels of American journalism.
We can soon reach a point when “keeping on top of the news” leads to a special form of misunderstanding--contemporamania. Our national metabolism, hyped beyond endurance by advertising intoxicants, needs sedatives, not adrenalin, to meet the perennial crisis of the next few decades. Our media, both as promoters I of merchandise and disseminators of ideas, do not let us calm down enough; as the case of Sputnik shows, we permit crises and all other kinds of extraordinary public awareness to’ be perverted for cheap purposes.
Admen and businessmen use unavoidable agitation to further agitate the public for private goals. Who cares for the commonweal? Some day they will figure out how to use an earthquake to sell earth-moving machinery. But perhaps the infantile and subversive‘ reactions of admen and toy men to the not-very-silly ’ Russian bauble can make us appreciate the insanity of Madison Avenue’s pre-fabricated daily Babel.
Meanwhile, there is a grim irony in the Russian propaganda victory. Their first satellite (too high for optimum scientific observation,, and transmitting on frequencies ill-suited to maximum world-wide tracking) was more a successful advertising campaign than a successfully collaborative IGY venture. That may explain the sudden flareup of cosmic brainstorming along Madison Avenue. Sputnik, rather beat the sky-writing, zeppelin-hiring fraternity at its own game of razzmatazz.
Tuesday, 19 January 2010
And if cinematic cynics have found a gold mine, can TV’s prospectors be far behind? The frantic phone calls of TV programmers have forced Tom Corbett, Space Cadet out of interplanetary retirement (TV buffs lost interest in “science” in 1952); new cosmic episodes are already in production.
Official Films caught the eye and contractual pen of eight station policymakers within a few days of a direct mailing about Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. Zev’s Science Fiction Theatre is also getting a new Kremlin-inspired whirl. (It must be reassuring to the Russians, if they read Variety: Tales of Tomorrow, Space Patriot and Space Fuzzies also suddenly have new futures.) Tin Pan Alley has its own crash programs to fill what Thoreau called the “broad, flapping American ear.”
The U.S. Copyright Office reported that by November 7 at least three patriotic songwriters had come to their country’s defense in the dark hour of Sputnik‘s ascendancy. Sam Manning of New York City was the first to file an appropriate ditty: Bee Beep, Bee Beep-Round and Round the Sputnik Goes. This, a mere five days after, blasting off. Gerald Englerth reflected five more days for his creation:
I’m flying all around the world With my crazy satellite girl Well, ever since the satellite’s birth, We’ve been circling around the earth. Or this deathless couplet: I say the fun has just begun We’re on Sputnik No. 1.
A certain pseudonymous Peter Prokovieff Philbrick Shultz was next with Sputnik!--Tango di USSR, but this freedom fighter’s blow for culture was actually registered with another star-shine patriot, a C.H. McEntyre of LaCanada, California. May his fiddle hold up under the intense heat. Englerth, in a veritable fit of creativity, has already confessed to Puppnik, celebrating another Soviet phenomenon--but with the same good old American doggerel.
The Wall Street Journal reported (Nov. ,6) ‘that the toy makers were jumping into the Sputnik’s orbit too. Or, as the reporter put it: “Enterprising U.S. companies hope to push their sales to higher orbits by exploiting Russia’s Sputnik I and IT.” Numerous manufacturers have launched “crash programs to get out new products either Sputnik-shaped or, Sputnik-named.” The inventory of such national-security projects includes, at this early date, play helmets, bubble gum, balloons, Christmas candy and sequin ‘decorations for ladies’ dresses shaped like the orbiting artificial stars. Books, telescopes, globes, cats and pickles are among the commodities receiving a boost from the agency branch-office in Moscow.
The approaching Christmas season always has its own special anxieties for the ambitious toy man. But charitable Russian atheists have conveniently timed their rocketry to give an extra push to our commercial Saint Nicks, who are sweating more from fat inventories than from pillowed, red-flannel suits. Observes Irving Cohen, senior vice-president of the Ideal Toy Corp.: “We’re quite thankful 10 the Russian scientists for their timing.” Ideal moved up release dates on a “Satellite Launcher Truck,” a $4.98 contraption which shoots discs forty-five feet into the air, and a $7.98 Sky Sweiper which projects images of aircraft, (and now Sputniks) onto the wall to be dispatched with suction-tipped missiles from the game’s twin-rocket launcher.
Truly an ideal boy’s game in a man’s world. Or to put the same childish values into merchandising categories, the same company’s books show 200,000 satellite launchers shipped since Sputnik, against an anticipated 100,000. Progress depends on the orbit you’re keeping, Ideal was able to make its contribution to America’s growth by working its staff till 2 a.m. for three nights after the Soviet launching. (We had our space toys on the market forty-eight hours after Sputnik started circling.”
There are other hustlers for the public welfare in the American business community. Park Plastics, Linden, N. J., simply taped the word “Sputnik” in the appropriate places on its satellite battle stations; it also added a throaty beep sound to its toy. Now that ought to interest a lot of youngsters in algebra and physics. To take care of expected retailer demand, Arthur Lange, company president, thoughtfully moved eighty people on the water-pistol production line over to the space-toy department.
Coleco Toy Products of Hartford, Connecticut, has ‘already made 80,000 space helmets to cover the empty heads of America’s pre-adolescents ‘good insurance that they will be too hopped up to get anything out of their math and science classes. It all started (two spring wires for antennas and painted-on stars) at the Monday lunch after Sputnik. By nightfall, plans had matured; four days later around-the-clock production was under way.
Monday, 18 January 2010
The entire country is crawling with Soviet satellites. An Atlanta restaurant comes out with a Sputnik-burger with small dog, the “dog” being a cocktail sausage on a hamburger garnished with “Czarist Russian dressing” topped by a “satellite olive." A canny Philadelphia grocer, moved his overstocked, undersized potatoes by dubbing them “spudniks.” A new potato peeler is, inevitably, a Spudnik. Ronson rushes a TV commercial on the air for its new buton-fueled pocket lighter; the ad has a beeping radio background, zooming rocket ships, animated space figures.
Even staid Rand McNally, with a solid reputation, for keeping its feet on the ground, stoops to conquer in its latest advertising space ’ by suggesting: “. . . When the rockets take off for outer, space . . . it would seem only natural to stop off at your nearest moon and ask the man for a free Rand McNally space chart?’ And Wallachs, a sedate New York City clothier, got into the right orbit with a full-page ad in the Times (Nov. 7) showing the Muttnik’s parachuted canine touching down amidst a group of blase, Wallach-appareled members of the Madison Avenue aristocracy. The copy was tongue-in-cheek:
New Yorkers take anything in their stride . . . not the least of it, the most unpredictable weather this side of Outer Space. Today’s balmy temperatures aren’t fooling anyone. Why not get the jump on the first big breeze by choosing your new Hart Schaffner & Marx coat--now. You could circle the globe and find no greater selection of fine fabrics, new patterns and distinctive styles than you’ll find today at your nearest Wallach store.
Now there’s more to this kind of au-courantist wit than there is in the grim jokes about Sputnik which mask our fear (e.g., the Sputnik cocktail: one part vodka, three parts sour grapes). For the gay-dog, devil-may-care mentality which is the advertiser’s stock in trade is revealed by things like Sputnik for what it is--an adolescent, anti-intellectual pose that is supposed to solve some of the production dilemmas of a machine society. The adult answer to sticky sales would be a long-range effort to raise the tastes and intellectual aspirations of the American people so that their deepening desires might take up the slack of factories.
Madison Avenue’s facile solution of bigger and bigger advertising budgets to hornswoggle the consumer into action makes the adult goal ever more difficult to achieve. Every time we allow ourselves to use a Sputnik-type bandwagon to marshal public awareness of a product, or cause, or set of values, we make it that much more difficult to appeal to men rationally and for more than trivial purposes. The search for gimmicks that will move goods, instead of the search for mature uses of technology that will satisfy the ad-suppressed desire for the good life, is at the heart of American anti-intellectualism.
Take the motion-picture industry. A jaded Variety reporter recently observed that “the road to riches is partly paved with gimmicks.” Hollywood 1957 has been the year of “inexpensive exploitation products,” “horroramas” and outer-space movies. Sputnik is just the latest of the Monsters to be exploited. The Red star has, for example, proved a “convenient trailer in the sky” for a movie version of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, the filming of which has been pushed up from next year to within the next four to six weeks.
Crash programs (even in nineteenth-century rocketry) are a commendable display of America’s intellectual and imaginative vigor. Sputnik also “cued a quick booking” of Walt Disney’s Man in Space for a local New York theater. It further prompted the movie moguls to dust off film cans labeled When Worlds Collide, Conquest of Space, This Island Earth, It Came From Outer Space and Satellite in the Sky.
Hollywood’s handsome contributions to our pre-Sputnik intellectual development thus give the American teenager’s mind another witless spin. Is it any wonder the adolescent in our society is at loose ends, and academically childish? While Russian children have been absorbing up to ten years’ rigorous scientific training by the end of high school, ours have been watching these parodies of science. This is a horror story that Hollywood would find little money in.
--from The Nation, November 23, 1957
Sunday, 17 January 2010
Saturday, 16 January 2010
III. The Doctrine of Popular Infallibility
But perhaps the most deeply-rooted illusion keeping America and its television from maturing rapidly enough to meet its agenda is the idea that if the public wants something in a democracy it’s perfectly OK to provide it, no questions asked. Giving the public what it wants is a business shibboleth; advising the public where it is wanting is regarded as a quasi-totalitarianism.
It is time we took a deeper look at the dangers of rule by the numbers. Whatever John Q. wants, John Q. gets goes the refrain. But does he always? Really? Supposing what he really wants is a satisfying work role, and that in the action adventure programs he superficially works out the tension and boredom of his job? More satisfying work is what he really wants. And suppose when he watches the sleek antics of convertibled private eyes, he really wants a satisfying marriage and family life.
And when she watches the canned compassion of Queen for a Day, she really wants to exist in a community where mutual concern is an everyday reality? Or when she and her husband watch Jack Paar and Dorothy Kilgallen spit, they really want to share in significant controversy about the great issues of our day. What I’m driving at is that the ordinary American may be accepting shoddy substitutes for the basic satisfactions a humane industrial society could provide him. The possibility that what we call bad television obscures basic needs is why I am unsatisfied with television criticism which doesn’t look for causes but merely wants to do away with symptoms.
Another insufficiently discussed problem about cultural democracy is that it always carries the risk of failure. The majority can choose poorly, even to the point of self-destruction. Giving the public what it thoughtlessly feels it wants may actually be greasing the skids into oblivion. The enshrinement of the entertainer as hero in America is surely an instance of the public choosing poorly. And it will take much painful readjustment to dethrone Liz and Fabian and Mickey Mantle, and put in their place exemplars worthy of free men. If it is hard to dramatize the real heroes of the American experiment, then that is simply another example of how tough it is to be free successfully
What I’ve been arguing, then, is that American television can ultimately be no better than our understanding of our own history, our own institutions and our selves. Whitman once said that great art requires great audiences, and similarly great television demands an America aspiring to real greatness, not merely a facile sense of superiority. And to paraphrase another great American, don’t ask what this new medium can do for you but ask what you can do in your home and community to help broadcasting achieve greatness. This does not mean however that we should let television get off easily by losing its responsibility in a labyrinth of multiple causation. As my demands on America are high because she has benefitted so much from history, so my demands on the television medium are great because of its unusual potential and our own great need for the understanding that leads to wise action. To which much is given is as true of a medium of communication as it is of a culture.
Friday, 15 January 2010
We need a seemingly impossible task to energize us off dead center. The kind of idealism that moves Peace Corpsmen and the Urbana Quakers to donate 1 percent of their income to the UN is what will help us undertake a qualitative revolution at home that will in turn make us willing to support the quantitative revolution abroad.
Once we begin to expect of ourselves as individuals the high performance that justifies fully freemen, we can turn to our institutions and purge ourselves of illusions about them. Then we shall lay the ghost of Adam Smith. The clichés we swap about competition, progress, and freedom from government initiative simply no longer square with the corporate America we are living in.
The folksays of the 1920s—the business of America is business, what we need is more business in government and less government in business—are not only useless as guides to action but they dangerously try to keep imposing rural politics on an industrial culture. A complex, interdependent technological society needs a strong active government at all levels. The very vitality of the private sector of our economy has developed imbalances in the public sector that only an energetic government can handle.
Let us not forget that the FCC was first founded in the 1920s because business needed an umpire to quiet down the squealings and howlings of unregulated wavelengths. The extension of government concern to the character and program promises of applicants for wavelengths was a perfectly legitimate safeguard that we would not squander a scarce public resource the way we wasted our physical resources in the predepression period.
The theory that the best government is that which governs least was true when one wanted to throw off the arbitrary rule of despotic kings and when the wide open spaces separated one man from his neighbors. Even Jefferson however stated federal aid to education in 1787 by setting aside land for the support of schools in the Northwest Ordinance. I think we should update political theory to say that the best government is that which attracts the least incompetence in public officials.
If we could begin to attract the very best men into public service, the debilitating idea that politics is per se corrupt and inefficient would soon disappear. The fact is that today there are many sources of power that limit our freedom—big corporations, big agriculture, big labor, big trade associations. To continue to assume that government is the only potentially despotic power is innocent beyond imagination.
Take the issue of censorship. Soap companies and cigarette manufacturers have exercised a virtual censorship over prime time broadcasting out of all proportion to their contribution to the GNP for years. These high volume, low unit cost firms find fun and games more conducive to their marketing needs than controversy and significance. If the FCC can propose rules of competition that would insulate prime time schedules from the excessive power of such advertisers, I think such rules should be tried.
And to complain about federal interference per se links the fact that powerful economic forces in the private sector are not always in the public interest. If regulations of the three networks could have prevented ABC from having depressed the level of nighttime programming, then I’m willing to entertain schemes for raising a floor of higher standards under inter network competition.
Which brings up another myth about our business system—competition. I don’t really believe that 3,500 radio stations have served us better than 1,000, unless you consider the substitution of Chubby Checkers for a balanced schedule of news and public affairs an improvement. And the penchant networks have for counter-programming documentaries and specials, or overlapping an opponent’s schedule is competition that doesn’t always redound to the viewer’s advantage.
I have no easy solution to these problems of competition in broadcasting or in other sectors of American life for that matter. But I am sure that ritual incantation of phrases like “individual initiative” and “progress and competition” are no substitute for the steady and continuing examination of changing economic and social realities in America. After ten years of struggle, the educational broadcasters have successfully sought relief at the public treasury for tax money to accelerate the growth of a crucial part of the public sector.
If this pump priming works, perhaps we should find further ways of helping the chronically undernourished educational broadcasters to fulfill their potential. I no longer believe the myth that the private sector is the only wealth-producing part of the economy. Public health, public education and other non-private institutions have contributed just as much to our abundance as has entrepreneurial leadership.
Thursday, 14 January 2010
Still I think it would be useful to lay off television for a while and see how the problem looks if we blame America for what we don’t like on television. For the more I ponder television’s balance sheet as a cultural institution, the more I come to believe that our national assumptions and illusions are what keep television from maturing fast enough. So my “plan of action” is a call for some deeper thoughts on what we are as a civilization. For we activist Americans tend to forget that thought, sober contemplation and self-analysis, are a form of action; indeed, thought is the most distinctively humane form of activity.
I know this runs against the national style, but part of my message is precisely that: the old style, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants, activism is proving to be just as unsuccessful in the collaborative, interdependent future we face as it has been successful in our individualistic, atomistic past. Because history blessed us in unique measure, we got away with an essentially thoughtless and prodigal national style. No more. And we are pushing our luck if we think that what was so successful for us in the past will continue to be so in the future.
The increasingly false assumptions inhibiting the maturing of our country and its institutions (including the television) seem to me to center in three interrelated areas: 1) the cult of American superiority; 2) the mythology; and 3) the doctrine of popular infallibility. What I am arguing today is that our institutions would more nearly serve our needs, present and anticipated, were we to purge ourselves of these superficially comforting but actually self-defeating illusions.
I. The Cult of American Superiority
Perhaps the most blatant expression of “the cult of American superiority” was Emerson Foote’s contention a few years ago that “America is still the all-time Number One on Humanity Hit Parade.” He meant by this remark to give our businessmen heart during the 1958 recession. But its basic concept is one that all of us have felt to some degree.
Foote was no fool. In 1948 he astonished his advertising peers by resigning the American Tobacco account, then worth $12 million in bookings (about a fifth of the agency's billings). And in 1964 he resigned as chairman of McCann Erickson saying he was opposed to handling cigarette accounts. He was then a member of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer and Stroke and endorsed the Surgeon General's report that linked cigarette smoking and lung cancer. He ridiculed protestations that advertising had nothing to do with smoking! A business man can be an idealist even when it hurts financially.
Now tribal ethnocentrism is a universal phenomenon. And that local piety and reverence we call patriotism is a positive value quite different from the innocent conviction that the outsider is the barbarian. The cult of American superiority, however, is something less than this valuable virtue of patriotism and quite a bit more than mere tribal ethnocentrism.
The conviction that because America is different it has a unique meaning for all mankind goes back as far as the Puritan divines who regarded their settlement in the wilderness as a city on a hill, a special concern of Providence which became a special lesson to the world. In more secular form, we find the same spirit in de Crèvecœr’s description in the eighteenth century of “this new man, the American.” Emerson expressed the same idea in referring to “the American Adam,” starting history again in a New World Eden.
Down through our intellectual history, from Jefferson to Lincoln to the twentieth century presidents with their New Nationalism, New Freedom, New Deal, and New Frontier, America has been the land of fresh starts, of continuing rebirths to wider purposes and horizons. The trouble starts when we begin to assume by our actions and statements that this American ideal is already reality. We laugh at the cult of superiority when we see it in another half grown-up modern state, Soviet Russia. Their inane claims to have invented everything (including baseball) leave us limp with laughter. Yet our fascination with being biggest, first, the most, springs from the same kind of adolescence.
We are certainly the richest, but are we the happiest? We surely have the most freedom, but can we honestly say we’ve made the most of it? We are the luckiest nation in history, but have we been the wisest in protecting and conserving our good fortune? No one who remembers how we plundered virgin timber and soil, the legacy of millenia, can answer that question affirmatively.
Nor do the rotting slumscapes of our city centers attest to a high level of individual responsibility on the part of respectable but fleeing suburbanites. It becomes clearer to most of us that material possessions are no guarantee of even minimal happiness. They seem to be a necessary but not sufficient condition of well-being. Indeed, we begin to see that a society of abundance generates its own diseases and dilemmas. We know already there is no correlation between gross national product and greater national purpose; nor do we much doubt which GNP we need most.
The trouble with the cult of American superiority began it seems to me when we began to assume that the quantitative revolution of more chickens in every pot and longer tailfins in every two-car garage was what the American dream was all about. On the other hand, addressing ourselves to the unfinished business of letting the underdog two-thirds of the world in on the decencies of abundance could justify the continuing superiority of American civilization. Frankly I don’t think enough of us are touched by that vision of extending maximum opportunity to the rest of man. We have become bemused by a trivial trinity—Las Vegas, Disneyland, and Miami Beach. When we should have been reading John Winthrop, Tom Paine, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson, we have been watching Liz and who is it today, Eliot Ness and Kookie.
Our fascination as a people with such nonentities has kept us for longer than television’s existence from repaying history for our unique opportunity. We have been the unquestionably lucky heirs of a once-in-a-race-lifetime kind of convergence—the outpouring of the excess economic and intellectual energies of Europe into the incredible potential of the North American continent.
And to whom so much has been given, surely a great deal must be expected. The lazy argument that America is not as bad as her enemies say she is should be buried once and for all by ourselves. This is the most impoverished criterion imaginable. Let our standard be as exalted as our opportunities have been—let us ask ourselves, are we as good as we think we are, are we as good as we could be, are we as good as we should be, given our opportunities. Think of how our television schedules would look by such criteria. But also remember we must apply such criteria to all our institutions, not just vent our frustrations about the complexities of an industrial society on the newest medium.
I still believe very strongly in the mission of America. But I fear it will founder soon unless it is transformed at home and extended generously abroad. Too many of us complacently assume that our revolution is behind us when the truth of the matter is that we are committed to an unending one. Not only the first, but rather the finest. Not merely the biggest, but preferably the best of its kind. Not simply the most, but also a few things done with care. There are signs that this revolution of quality is about to transform us into an urbane as well as an urban civilization.
If you want to see the next America, take a look at Union Square in San Francisco or Mellon Square in Pittsburgh where the man has mastered the machine by putting a park for people on top of a subterranean parking lot. Or look at General Motors Technical Center, the factory as campus, north of Detroit. Or Victor Gruen’s various shopping centers, latest in Rochester, NY, in which commerce achieves a civilized context. These oases of planned excellence in deserts of aimless and amiable mediocrity are all characterized by the subordination of individual wastefulness to collaborative creativity. This is a new national style, and it’s going to be tough for most of us to learn it, because it goes against the grain of our rural inheritance.
But if these hopeful signs are not to be false dawns, Americans must swiftly learn more about how they have transformed themselves physically from rural innocence to urban complexity, so that their images of themselves can catch up with reality. Our version of our past, partly because of television’s fear of controversy, is much too nostalgic, not enough aware of struggle and failure. It is like a family album thumbed through after Thanksgiving dinner: only the smiling good times seem to show through.
The American people deserve to have a really complex picture of their past that explains them, warts and all. We need to look at the American Revolution and the fumbling that followed it before our Constitution; it would give us greater sympathy for the groping of the new nations. We need to look at the vituperative journalism of the Federalist period; it would demarblize our democratic pantheon and put the struggle back in our national experiment.
We need to look at the abolitionists so that the sit-ins wouldn’t be such a shocking surprise. We need to learn more about the early unions, about struggles for reform in the Jacksonian and Progressive periods. I emphasize struggle because if we saw the tension, violence, and bitterly-fought battles of our history, we might begin to identify more with the underdogs that now constitute two-thirds of the world as well as at least a quarter of those inhabiting our own shores. Only because the popular media’s versions of American history are so bland do we fail to see how not so very long ago we were an underdeveloped area subject to the same contempt and doubt the new nations of Asia and Africa are today.
I think part of our problem in America is that almost all of us are nouveaux riches. Under ordinary circumstances we would have the proverbial three generations to learn how to use our discretionary income and leisure nobly. But we’re not going to have three generations to mature. If history was easy on us in our early squanderings; it appears to be ready to be equally severe in the immediate future. Now the process must be faster.
Facile illusions about our superiority may also keep us from learning enough from other cultures. We must never forget that our real genius, which we often allow to be obscured, is our capacity to assimilate and amalgamate. And we have a lot to learn as well as a lot to teach. We yet need to eschew our tradition of childish prodigality for the husbandry of Europe, our breathy activisim for the serenity of Asia. The best antidote to facile illusions of superiority would be such global sharing.
And we need above all a capacity for failure. By this I don’t mean a loss of the will to succeed, but rather an ability to share success gracefully and learn from failure. Sputnik I was a solar plexus blow to the national pride of the country of know-how. And I think we learned a thing or two about the importance of education from this “failure.” But the shock of being second could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to us. Being second is not the same thing as being second-rate, a truth we can learn from the United Kingdom. What we need, rather than the comforting illusion of superiority, is a superior desire to extend the American idea of maximum opportunity regardless of one’s antecedents to the bottom one-quarter at home and the underdog two-thirds of the world that needs the same breaks history gave us a chance to partly realize.
--from the British Film Institute magazine, Contrast