The long list of calls settled itself into the monotone of routine. “Hi, my name is Erik, and I’m calling for Jim Scheibel, your DFL candidate for Mayor of Saint Paul.” The 1989 election was going to be close, so Get Out The Vote (GOTV) calling to loyal Democrats was important. But just as I let the script propel my calls with their own momentum the soft gravely tone on the other end split the evening open.
“Oh, dear, you don’t have to remind me to vote. I’ve been voting ever since they let us.”
We’ve been “letting” women vote for 97 years, ever since Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment on August 26th, 1920 by just one vote. The anniversary of this landmark event, “Women’s Equality Day”, is a good time to reflect on how young and precarious this precious foundation of democracy is for half the population.
This piece, from 2015, is a good one to mark the 200th birthday of Karl Marx. His analysis of history, and where it appeared that we were going, was remarkable in many ways, mostly in how badly it was misinterpreted. As we move ahead to a market driven economy that is remarkably distinct from an industrial economy, an understanding of Marx (along with Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, and Milton Friedman) seems more essential every day – assuming it’s done properly, that is.
Imagine for a moment that you live in the most fair and equitable economy you can dream up. There are some very specific things that most people in the developed world, especially Americans, would think would be a part of this.
There would be upward mobility, where family circumstances do not determine the kids’ future. People could find their own way according to their own talents and choices as to what makes a good life. Money would rarely limit dreams, as a free-flowing capital market would provide funding for good ideas at reasonable rates. Most would own their own homes and have control over their own destiny. Workers would own the company they work for, banking their retirement at a reasonable age on the place that they helped build. Basics like food and access to health care would not be expensive.
Such a place is the embodiment of pieces of both the Democratic and Republican parties in odd turns. This place of the imagination has also been pretty close to the perfect state envisioned by Karl Marx, although it may be descending into an oligarchy (which I prefer to call “gangster state”).
This weekend a line was crossed, a bright red line painted in the blood of over 400 thousand Americans who died to end the scourge of Nazism forever. Chanting “Blut und Broden”, or its easy translation, children with far more energy than sense attempted to define Americanism by what has been demonstrated and defined to be its exact opposite.
Like their apparent heroes, they are losers. But they having chosen the losing side of history for predictably bad reasons beyond a simple moral failure. Their inability to learn from history is a feature of a nation incapable of learning from history and thus in need to constantly redefine itself.
As much power as there is in constant redefinition, there is also a need for constant vigilance. History is calling us today. Millions of ghosts are watching us waiting for us to make the right decision.
Long ago, most Americans lived as Laura Ingalls Wilder chronicled in the “Little House” series. Pa Ingalls and family were out in the wilderness, living with the rhythm of the land and putting away what they could to survive long winters and perhaps beyond. The family’s net worth was what they had around them.
That life has been replaced with interdependence based on a dollar value assigned to absolutely everything. We all get by with any extra scratch, should there be some, not stored up to get through the winter but properly invested in convertible assets. This means everyone is subject to the “free market”, which determines the value of all assets including experience, talent, and work.
That interdependence has changed our world to one with much less hard work or struggles against nature, and yet to many it has become as hostile as any winter on the Great Plains.
Picture yourself in England at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign. If you have some skills as a part of the growing middle class, things look better every day. That life comes in part from unskilled workers driven into the growing (and filthy) cities who are more productive than ever before. The great symbol of the improving standard of living greets you in the morning as a cup of this once luxury beverage, tea. It comes from China, traded under the barrel of the guns of the Royal Navy through the new colony of Hong Kong. The latest in technology, the Clipper Ship, brings it to you with great speed and makes it possible to run this enterprise at a distance. The sun never sets on the British Empire, and tea is both its greatest commodity and emblem of success.
Today, in the waning daze of the American Empire that isn’t an empire, things could hardly be different even as they are the same. Coffee is the beverage of choice for 54% in the US. It has always been the workingman’s drink, but it is moving more yupscale – even though 35% of us still drink it black (as it is meant to be, damnit). It is shipped from tropical, underdeveloped nations in unromantic cargo containers as the second most traded commodity in the world by value ($15B per year), behind only oil. The nations that produce it are rapidly urbanizing into filthy cities. The trade is managed over the internet by a cadre of traders and speculators.
History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes like a street poet hitting a beat.
The cottonwoods are tall and scraggly, leaning over each other as shaking hands in friendship. This is their world, a place where they can stand undisturbed by little more than a few hikers and the buzz of motorboats. Their size alone gives them an authority that allows them to speak silently, telling stories about their world that reach back over the centuries. This is Pike Island, an small speck in the Mississippi that has been allowed to go back to the way it was two centuries ago when Europeans first arrived.
In just a few days we celebrate a holiday somewhat more popular in the US than in Mexico. That’s just as well because it’s a classic North American kind of holiday in many ways. We are a family, which is why our relationship is so intense and personal at times.
It started as invasion by France to collect a debt, but the larger and better equipped French invasion force was defeated by a ragged group of Mexicans, some armed with little more than machetes and pitchforks. The Battle of Puebla on 5 May 1862 was 150 years ago this Saturday. It was not decisive, needing a few years before the colorful armies and politicians could sort it all out. But the victory at Puebla is a story deep at the heart of Mexican character – a determination and toughness that the great continent of North America shares as a very odd, sometimes dysfunctional family.