Posts Tagged ‘history’

Liberty Enshrined

Everyone believes in something. Even agnostics and atheists believe in something. Some put blind faith in money, thinking it will make them happy. Some put blind faith in material possessions, because, well, *sparklies*. Some put blind faith in their political party or right-left-center talking points. Some put blind faith in celebrity, buying Bieber cologne or other ludicrous claptrap. Some put blind faith in themselves, being so arrogant as to think they are infallible and therefore beyond question. Some even put blind faith in science, as odd as that sounds, believing that any and all studies that cross their path must be true (this leads to a lot of fad diets as well as other errors).

Copyright America In Context

Liberty’s Shrine

In my own case, I tend to put blind faith in the American ideal. For folks like me, Independence Park in Philadelphia is the Temple Mount, the Ganges River, the Mecca of our own beliefs. It’s a place of extreme importance, a shrine commemorating the place where the founding principles of this country were put to paper and approved by an assemblage of great minds and strong characters. A place where heretofore un-codified principles were defined and written into law and principle, grandiose notions such as “[w]e hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”; “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it”; or “[t]he privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it”. Fabulous ideas, amazing ideas, ideas that would inspire nation after nation to rebel against tyrants and kings and establish democracy. It’s the Great American Way that Independence Park symbolizes, the Great American Way that I hold most dear.


Folks are going to worship me someday, aren't they? :sigh:

“Folks are going to worship me someday, aren’t they? :sigh:”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, ideals aren’t real. They don’t exist, and you can’t count on them. If you do, you will be betrayed. Every time. The American Ideal is the same: it’s full of betrayal. The original Constitution says that certain people are only worth 3/5ths of other people, and also said that those in bondage who escape to another state must be returned into bondage. Basically, it protected the vile institution of slavery for nearly 100 years. Even today, long after that particular abomination was wiped out by amendment, there is betrayal. These documents have been subverted, abused and weakened, leaving a system of government so devolved it barely represents the will of the people at all, and our nation is in a fine ruddy mess because of it.

Then again, it’s still important to hold onto ideals. It’s vital, actually. They are the goal, the dream, the vision, and without our goals, dreams and visions, we are a dead species. And to keep goals, dreams and visions alive, it is important that kids be indoctrinated (for lack of a better word) with ideals that are truly valuable, else they, too, will grow up to be tyrants and monsters; and you can’t do any worse than indoctrinating them into the important American ideals of equality, liberty, self-governance, and independence.

And naked statuary, of course

And naked statuary, of course

There is also no better element of that indoctrination than a trip to Independence Park in Philadelphia. I really like Philadelphia for one simple reason: the park is dedicated not to rebellion (like Boston, with it’s homage to the Boston Massacre, Faneuil Hall, and Paul Revere), nor to warfare (like Valley Forge or Yorktown), nor to marble monoliths (like Washington, DC) but to ideas, thought, consideration, and debate. It’s a site that contains meeting rooms, and convention halls, and judicial chambers;  not cannons, trenches, or cemeteries, but desks. It is a truly remarkable place in that aspect, it’s dedicated to ideas, and I find that refreshing.

But he's just sitting there! THINKING!

But he’s just sitting there! THINKING!

Liberty Imprisoned

I first visited Philadelphia in the 90’s. At that time, the Liberty Bell was in a non-descript glass enclosure inside Independence Hall. Anyone could see it. I never bought into Bell lore myself (like most American legends, it’s more tall tale than fact), but I kinda liked the presentation: subdued, no drama, viewable by everyone, kinda like I envision liberty itself. Freedom should not be a big deal, it should not be something we put on a pedestal. It should just “be”. You don’t pay attention to it when it’s there, you just live your life, yet everyone notices when it’s absent.

Then 9/11 happened, our liberties were sacrificed to the Lords of Fear, and The Liberty Bell became a symbol of our shift to madness.

In the grief-stricken days after 9/11, we were all expecting more terrorist attacks. We went bat-shit crazy protecting everything.  We improved airport security, then we “improved” airport security, then we began the systematic groin-groping known as the TSA. We started monitoring financial transactions, then started monitoring foreign communications, and now the NSA has a full-blown domestic spy program best suited for watching cheating spouses and stealing credit card numbers. We placed Jersey barriers in front of government buildings, we put metal detectors at the entry of every government building and landmark, and we built a prison for the Liberty Bell.

Liberty's Prison

Liberty’s Prison

On my second visit to Independence Park, I spotted the Liberty Bell Center, and it saddened me. The Liberty Bell is no longer just “there”, like our liberties should be. It is encased in a steel and glass structure, surrounded by guards and various security devices, reminiscent of a prison. It also, oddly, has the look of a high-end shopping mall, meaning not only is Liberty imprisoned but it’s also commercialized (they should call it Liberty Disney). I was so repulsed by the appearance of the Liberty Bell Center from afar, I didn’t have it in me to go there. Liberty was imprisoned and I didn’t want to be stuck on the outside, pressing my face against the glass in the hopes she’d remember me in her confinement.

I think the NPS has toned down the security in the intervening years, and I’ve heard from others that the Center is actually a pretty nice facility. But for me, the illusion has been shattered. The Liberty Bell, like the very civil liberties it represents, is not just cracked but contained, with an admission fee, groin groping, and gift shop.

[Photos on this blog entry are mine and thusly copyrighted.]



Independence National Historical Park

Founding Fathers Fetish (slate.com)

3D Tour of the Liberty Bell

Google Map of Independence National Historical Park


Read Full Post »

Tales of Infinite Sadness

I started my expedition through all the units of the National Park System to satisfy my fascination with all aspects of nature (flora, fauna, geology, aquatics, atmospherics). I did not expect to quickly fall in love with the other side of the parks: the historical side. As I began to tour each of those smaller sites, reading up on the history of each and their placement in the overall scheme of things, I also began to see the Great American Narrative forming, piece by piece, and was inspired to blog about it. It is only by seeing all these bits and pieces, filling in all the gaps created by our own, pufferied view of history, can one really see who we are and what we’re all about.

Yes, we are writing the Great American Narrative. And oh, what a narrative! We have heroes and villains, success and failure, trauma and reprieve, disaster and rebuilding, winning and losing. But through it all, there is something that is clear: we are making forward progress. Oh, sure, we’ve had setbacks. Right now, between lingering recession, erosion of certain civil liberties, the War on Terror and a culture that pits right against left in a Kobayashi Maru of political degradation, it feels like we’re going backwards. But really, we’d have a long way to go before we fall back to where we’ve been. Think about it: there’s no way any of our founding fathers would ever have imagined us having a half-black President. Like him or not, that’s a massive advancement from our formation over 225 years ago, when we held nearly 700,000 souls in lifelong bondage (a number that would swell to nearly 4 million by the time the War of Emancipation).

OK, so maybe progress is a little stalled …

That’s the interesting part of the Great American Narrative: we always seem to come out ahead, one way or another. The slaves were freed, but then they had to suffer through Jim Crow segregation, racial discrimination, institutional poverty, entrapping government subsidy programs, and bad educational systems, yet are finally coming out the other side. Sure, we’re not post-racial yet, but you can tell we’re really, really close (I’m guessing one more generation and we’re done with it — the recent Trayvon Martin murder debacle notwithstanding). Women also have made gains, from being the Great Unseen to becoming the major breadwinner in 40% of households and damn near winning the Presidency themselves. We’ve seen advances everywhere else, from sanitation & health to science & technology to occupational safety and even how we treat our children. Yep, we’re winning everywhere.

Well, we’re winning everywhere, unless you’re talking about the American Indian. When it comes to the Native American, there are no tales of victory. There is no Appomatox. There is no Seneca Falls or Nineteenth Amendment. There is no VE Day or the fall of a Berlin Wall. There is no eonomic security or energy independence. When it comes to the Native American, there is only one narrative, and that is a long tale of misery and betrayal and hardship and defeat and pain and infinite sadness.

The Parks reflect this in spades. Every park has some tiny, preamble segment of its visitor center museum dedicated to “early inhabitants”: always some native tribe who “lived off the land” only to, inevitably, be driven out of their homeland, be defeated in battle, be wiped out by some disease or pushed into starvation through overhunting or economic blockade. The lucky would be stuck on some downtrodden reservation, their pride replaced by the plagues of alcoholism, obesity and diabetes.


North Dakota reservation house, circa 2009

Horseshoe Bend is just one of hundreds of chapters in this sad, sordid book of misery. In this case, it is a tale pitting one side (the Cherokee tribal nation) against the other (the Creek) for the benefit of the middle (white Southerners). This particular Creek tribe wanted to keep their lifestyle and land and resisted American assimilation. White European settlers wanted the land for their own expansion. The Cherokee were allies of the U.S. and joined up with the militias of several states (led by future New Orleans hero and President, Andrew Jackson) to take Creek land through “justifiable” retaliation for some Creek raids on farms and forts throughout Alabama. The Creek, despite fortifications that impressed even Old Hickory, were eventually surrounded and horribly defeated. Out of a thousand Creek warriors, only about 200 escaped to south Florida to join up with the Seminoles. They had to surrender 23 million acres of land to Alabama and Georgia (2 million of which would go to the same Cherokee who turned their back on their brethren). It would end up being a short-loved victory for the duplicitous Cherokee: within 25 years those same people were expelled from Georgia & Alabama and forced to march down the Trail of Tears to dusty, infertile Oklahoma, where they would lead a hardscrabble life for generations. In the end, the only victor would be the white Europeans who used trickery, deception and long-standing inter-tribal rivalries to defeat the natives and take their land.


Only those with the bleakest heart can travel through Horseshoe Bend and the rest of the 400+ units of the National Park Service, and not be touched by the Tales of Infinite Sadness of the Native American.

[Unfortunately, I did not own a digital camera when I visited Horseshoe Bend.]



Horseshoe Bend National Military Park

Creek-Cherokee War

Scientific analysis of the demise of the Native American

Google map of Horseshoe Bend

Read Full Post »

Next week, President Obama will be giving the first State of the Union speech of his second term. I’ve listened to a lot of SotU speeches over the years, and after a time, they all sound the same. The same beats, the same phrases, the same patters and pauses and phony applauses. That’s why SotU Bingo is so popular, everyone knows it’s just a big bag of phony.

The sentence that always gets my dander up is “The state of our union is strong!” Obama said it, Bush said it, Clinton said it, even Roosevelt said it (with a slightly different phrasing). But when you look at it, right now, in the world in which we currently live, it actually isn’t. No politician will ever have the courage to say it, but in my opinion it needs to be said. Just as a man will never get out of the rut he is in as long as he is lying to himself, so too will a nation never get out of its rut unless it is honest with itself.

I would love for President Obama to give a State of the Union speech that brings out a level of harsh, basic, patent honesty that will truly shake up this country. Something, perhaps, like this:


“Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow Americans: today I come to you, as President and in accordance with the traditions of the office and my duties as defined in Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, to address this body and this nation on the state of our union.

“For two hundred and twenty-three years, Presidents have delivered addresses, in writing or in person, to this assembled body. For two hundred and twenty-two years, Presidents have declared that “the state of our union is strong”. Through war, recession, and catastrophe, presidents have continued to maintain that the nation is strong and we can work through any peril that may face us. I, too, believe that this nation can strongly and bravely face any external peril, be it foreign aggression, economic tribulation, or the hazards of climate and nature. However, the one thing that can harm this country, and that harms this country today, comes from within. We can not be defeated, but we can defeat ourselves.

“The strength of this nation comes from the strength of our ideals and the strength of our citizens. That much is undoubtedly true, and based on those factors alone, I could easily stand here before you and say “our country is strong”. But this type of strength is not enough to make for a strong UNION. A strong nation not only requires a citizenry of high character and strength, but a government that can perform those functions necessary to bring stability, justice, safety, and peace. Unfortunately, we do not have such a government, and that is keeping this nation from truly being great in this 21st century.

“Our Founders had the wisdom and foresight to create a fabulous document, the first written democratic Constitution in the history of mankind, a document that specified an amazing notion: the idea of three branches of government and the separation of powers. Put in the context of the span of human civilization, this was a magnificent creation! A chief executive, a notion existing since the dawn of humanity, providing leadership, especially in times of crisis or war. An independent judiciary, answerable only to the law and the principles upon which the group was founded, ensuring justice is applied evenly and fairly. And a legislature, the representatives of the people, giving a voice to all the members of the group in the decisions that are made. These three branches form the strength of a triangle, and, like a three-legged stool, when one is weak, the whole thing topples.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this nation is a three-legged stool wobbling on the weakness of one. We have a situation where one branch is failing this nation, and their failure is putting the entirety at risk. This Congress, this assembled body, is in a state of disarray the like this nation has not seen since the day Charles Sumner was caned on the floor of the Senate in 1856. This chaos is keeping this country back. It is holding our economy hostage. It is preventing the honest exchange of ideas. It is interrupting the wheels of justice. It is not capable of providing the necessary oversight to prevent Executive Branch overreach. It is engaging in a level of hostility that is inspireing division amongst the people. It is acting in a way unbecoming to the intent and purpose of Article 1 of the Constitution, and is an embarrassment to the people of these United States and to the free nations of the world.

“We have a Congress that cannot perform its most basic of duties. We have a Congress that cannot propose, much less adopt, a budget. We have a Congress that cannot confirm federal judges, leaving an overwhelmed judiciary. We have a Congress that forces the Chief Executive to invent clever ways to circumvent it because they are incapable of action. We have a Congress that, on the one hand, decries something as evil and demands action, yet on the other neuters the very agency designed to do it. This is a Congress that does not even allow the free discussion of ideas within its own halls, a body whose very rules allow an anonymous few to squelch even discussion of a topic! Regardless of political philosophy, right or left, the suppression of debate is fundamentally, morally, ethically WRONG and the Senate ought to be ashamed of itself for even having those rules. And the House isn’t much better: the majority party will only discuss things THEY want to discuss, to the detriment of fair and open discussion.

“Ladies and gentlemen of this Congress: this country needs a working legislative branch. It cannot function without it. Without a functioning legislature, we have uncertainty. We have doubts about our future. Nothing cripples a society like an uncertain future. We also have injustice, the injustice resulting from the silencing of open debate. This Congress, those of you assembled here, have duties. You have responsibilities, and you took oaths of office, sworn upon Bibles and Torahs and the Bhagavad Gita. Your oath compels you to serve this nation and the Constitution of the United States, not your party, not your ideology, not your favorite radical talk-show host or blogger, and certainly not the lobbyist who frequents your office on a daily basis. You need to serve your country and the Constitution. But you are not doing so, and judging by polls taken across the country, the people know this and are judging you poorly for it. This body needs to get to work, doing the people’s business, not perpetuating your own petty feuds.

“This Congress has a job to do, and needs to begin immediately. Propose and pass a valid budget. Vote on the appointments before you, ESPECIALLY the judicial appointments. Begin open and honest debate on the issues before you, and allow them to come before a vote. Eliminate any and all rules that allow anonymous blocks of any debate or appointment. Tackle the gun issue head on, free up the CDC to study the issue with scientific methods and allow the ATF to enforce the laws that you’ve passed OR repeal those laws if they’re too invasive, just don’t let them remain in the worthless state they’re in. Tackle climate change head on with honest, scientific debate, free from those who would skew such debate with lies and deception. Tackle this economy head-on by passing tax and regulatory reforms you deem necessary, and make them long-lasting so our business community knows there will be stability in our economy. Stop the pointless bickering over the debt ceiling, that is a fabricated issue and you know it. And get the lobbyists out of your offices and into the gallery with the rest of the citizens of the country. They are no better than the average person simply because they have large purse strings. And if there are members of this institution who find themselves incapable of performing their duties and fulfilling their oaths, then at least have the decency to step aside, retire, and allow another to take your place.

“This nation cannot survive and thrive with a malfunctioning government. We need a competent and honest Congress. Please give us one. Thank you, good night, and God Bless America.


Yeah, won’t happen. We’ll have more platitudes and more “mystery guests” in the balcony and more standing ovations of the same applause lines we’ve heard time and time again. Entropy will continue, and things will get worse, until either the next great leader, or the next great crisis, comes along and gives us the impetus to change our ways.

[Editted to include an oversight on “executive branch oversight”. Was intended to be part of this post but was missed.]

Read Full Post »

Boring Built America

The National Park Service has a couple hundred small, unimposing, mundane historic sites spread all over the country. They don’t cover events of magnitude, like Pickett’s Charge or the Gold Rush or the battle of the Alamo, but they are loved by their local communities and tell important stories nonetheless. Hopewell Furnace, in rural south-central Pennsylvania, tells one such story: mundane, boring, but vital.

Hopewell was an early ironworks, a forging business operating in  the late 18th, early 19th centuries. There, you can learn how charcoal was made; how limestone was harvested; and how those two materials were combined in a blast furnace with raw ore to form iron, the metal that transformed the world. Mundane & boring? Sure. Hopewell is well-maintained, the people are pleasant, the visiting children seemed to like it, but it isn’t particularly exciting. But you know what? Boring isn’t so bad: it built and defended this nation for over 200 years now.

It shouldn’t be too great of a leap to understand that iron built America. We look at the musket-carriers of the Revolutionary War with great reverence, but if it wasn’t for places like Hopewell, there would be no iron or steel for the musket barrels, wagon wheels, and cannons. We were in the early days of being an industrial juggernaut, producing 30,000 tons a year at the beginning of hostilities. Iron built the weapons that fought off enemies, shot at brothers, and conquered new territory. But it didn’t stop there. Iron built the railroads, and the great engines that rode on them. Iron built the ocean liners that shipped our goods everywhere in the world. Iron built the buildings and skyscrapers that housed finance, engineering, science, and even religion.

Yes, it’s all very poetic. What’s not poetic is how mundane it all is. Hundreds of men crawled around in mines, breathing in noxious fumes and dust and working themselves to the bone to extract ore. Dozens more gathered wood and endured the laborious process of turning wood into charcoal. Others dug limestone from cliff faces. Then there were the oxcart drives and teamsters, hauling stuff to and fro. Awfully boring, awfully dangerous, awfully hard work, all necessary to the production of iron at Hopewell Furnace.

But that’s what built this country. Not politicians, not “captains of industry”, not wealthy elitists, nor Harvard graduates or published authors or generals or soldiers or even architects. All of those occupations are worthless without real people doing real boring, mundane, uninteresting, hard work. Even today, it’s the trades who continue to build stuff. Whether they live & work in Pennsylvania or Mexico or China, today the entire world is built by the hard working folks doing the most boring of tasks over and over and over.

Next time you’re bored, remember: boring built America. And if you’re going to do something boring & monotonous, at least make it worthwhile to someone.

[All pictures are mine and thusly copyrighted. A few more, in black & white, are here.]



Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site

A Brief History of Iron & Steel

Pennsylvania Iron Furnace Sourcebook

Voluntary Simplicity

Google map to Hopewell Furnace

Read Full Post »

Compelling History

“Ugh, history is SOOOO boring!”

I hear ya, eighth grader! It’s not your fault. The fact is, most history writers suck. They may be brilliant historians but, by and large, they are lousy writers.


I had my angle for my post on FDR plotted out before I wrote it. The site in question was FDR’s home, I felt the need to write about who he was rather than what he did. Yet most of my prior reading was on the latter: FDR and the Depression, FDR vs. the courts, FDR  at war, etc. There’s a lot of interesting reading there, but these isolated issues don’t give a full measure of the man. 

I knew what I needed. I needed to sit down & read a book spanning his whole life. Only that would let me understand FDR himself. But let’s be fair: writing a biography of one of history’s great figures is hard enough, but putting it in one volume while covering it well is damned near impossible. The stories of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Napolean, Gandhi, and FDR can’t adequately be covered in one volume. But I did some scrolling through Amazon’s reviews, and I found a book that had good recommendations. “FDR”, by Jean Edward Smith, might meet my need.

So how does one fit a momentous life into one volume? Well, this is my first complaint about Smith’s effort. He took a monumental, perhaps impossible, writing challenge, and wasted the entire first chapter on FDR’s family ancestry: Roosevelt’s wealthy forebears and Dutch family tree. Right off the bat, the book is as boring as the Book of Numbers! Who begat who, from wence did they come. Madness! Why bother with that stuff? It’s not really relevant. Sure, his upbringing is important (his relationship with his mother, Sarah, is crucial), but all that farfle about how his family emigrated to the U.S. and continually married their cousins? Who cares? It’s eating up valuable pages, and by doing it right up front, it’s setting a horrid tone for the book.

Then there’s Smith’s penchant to retroactively drop in characters. Out of nowhere, Smith will bring in a character who, it turns out, knew FDR since college! But wait, he already wrote about those college years.  Why didn’t he mention this person then? No, he drops him in and talks again about the past to bring us up to speed about this one guy and then gets moving along the main path again. This rubber-banding doesn’t happen too frequently (thank goodness) but when it does, it’s certainly annoying.

But here’s the worst part. Smith ends the book abruptly. “FDR died. The end.” No denouement, no nothing. Just “he’s dead.” Not even a wrap-up, or a summation, or an epilogue. Nothing but bibliography. It’s like, in the end, FDR’s life didn’t have any meaning. In reality he got a tombstone and a monument in Washington, but Jean Smith couldn’t be bothered to write another couple of paragraphs about his funeral train or the eulogy delivered by Winston Churchill. Perhaps he was as tired of writing the book as I was of reading it.


History is A STORY. I love history, and historians love history, because it’s a fascinating story. Tell it like one! FDR’s life had all the hallmarks of a great novel: a man of privilege and bearing with a fairy-tale existence, suddenly struck with adversity. A man who learned, from that adversity, to become a leader of a troubled nation. A man who formed a powerful alliance of capitalists, monarchs, tyrants, egotists and soldiers that would go on to defeat the greatest evil of the 20th century and, when all was said and done,  would still remain as perplexed as the rest of us by that elusive thing known as love. What a story! But, sadly, told rather poorly in this case.

In this day and age, no one can go through their professional life with only one set of skills and hope for success. Doctors are learning to be business managers to succeed in their practices. Business managers are learning about databases in order to target their customers. Computer programmers are learning how to be salespeople so they can garner their next consulting gig. And historians need to learn, too. They need to learn how to write, how to craft a narrative. They need to learn about plot, and dialogue, and character development, and how to engender empathy through prose.

This is not to say historians should fabricate or embellish the story. I’m not suggesting they create Twilight: The Yalta Conference. I am suggesting they learn through their studies what narrative exists in the history that’s real, and use good writing to bring it out and make it interesting.

Read Full Post »

Charisma is My Dump Stat

Ever since I was a young pup, growing up in the Western Massachusetts confluence of mill towns and dairy farms, people routinely sang the praises of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “He saved the country and the people” was the mantra. If you were a blue-collar worker, FDR was a hero. If you were a farmer, FDR was a hero. If you held degrees in the arts or sciences, FDR was a hero. His name was always spoken with reverence. “He got us out of the Great Depression”. As a kid, I never understood it, but it was taught to me from a very early age. Actually, “taught” may not even be the operative word here, it was almost genetic.

This reverent view was especially held by those who actually lived through the Depression. My grandparents – disinterested in politics otherwise – loved FDR, as did their brothers & sisters, family friends, and others of the same generation. My parents’ generation, mere tweens during the 30’s & 40’s, also spoke lovingly of the man. It’s only now, with my grandparents’ generation is 20 years dead and my parents’ rapidly disappearing, that FDR is receiving critical attention by the general public.

I find this utterly fascinating. Sure, pundits & partisans would complain about the economics of the New Deal and the court packing scandal, but FDR had to be dead 60 years before the common man started questioning his Presidency and leadership. That’s almost three generations! I can’t think of anyone short of George Washington and perhaps Thomas Jefferson who escaped such criticism for so long. The people of FDR’s time had to basically die before public opinion turned against him. Today, we decry the previous loser the day after Election Day.

How in the world does this happen? How is it even remotely possible that any leader can earn such true devotion amongst his people? His wasn’t based on fear, nor was it based on indoctrination (contrary to right-wing conspiracy theorists). The devotion FDR enjoyed was real, and true, and long-lasting. This is the real story of FDR: not the impact of his policies but the power of his charisma. Utterly fascinating!

I have many flaws. Perhaps the most striking one is my near-total lack of charisma. I’m not particularly likable, and have virtually no leadership skills. I couldn’t convince people to escape from a burning building. If I was at a picnic and implored people to not eat the botulism-tainted potato salad, a score of ambulances would be needed to cart away the doubled-over masses. To me, strong & genuine leadership qualities are as alien as an iPhone to Neanderthals. That is why I find FDR so fascinating. His charisma is akin to string theory: practically unknowable.

Here’s my own take on why Roosevelt inspired such devotion: he had the “perfect storm” of confidence, communication, competence, and empathy. His family, especially his mother, Sara, gave him a good education and instilled in him a measure of self-confidence absolutely required of a good leader. FDR was a great communicator. His speeches are the stuff of legend and they were delivered, not as oratory, but as conversation, meaning they were genuine. Was FDR competent? Sure, you could say his policies weren’t necessarily wise, but he got them done. People respect people who get things done, action is rewarded far greater than thought or bearing. And FDR did accomplish an awful lot in his 12 years as President.

So that leaves empathy. Empathy is the capacity to care about your fellow human being: to see, understand and relate to other people and their troubles. In the beginning, FDR (like most bluebloods) didn’t have much in the way of empathy. He was “upper crust”, raised in the bubble of Hudson Valley prestige and private school. He was not fit to lead the U.S., at least not in a manner to receive such a tremendous amount of public adulation. But something happened that gave him the empathy he needed to be one of the top five Presidents in history. That something? Polio. To alleviate the pain of polio (or perhaps Guillain-Barre syndrome), FDR would visit Warm Springs, Georgia. There he’d meet poor farmers and others trying to live in impoverished conditions. It’s there he learned to empathize with the common man, and where he gained the final skill required to be a strong leader.

It’s both sad and relieving that presidents like FDR are far and few between. On the one hand, we could certainly use more competence in our nation’s capitol. We are certainly sick and tired of politico-speak (the near opposite of  good communication). And empathy? If there’s a skill that’s dead in Washington, it’s empathy. That’s why our government is failing us, that’s why Congress has minute approval ratings, why our President — like the one before him — barely holds 50%, why no one trusts the courts and dissatisfaction rules the land.

But on the other hand, imagine what leaders like FDR can do. He inspired such huge devotion, devotion that lasted for decades, can you imagine what would have happened if he wasn’t an honorable man? Well, carnage, that’s what. If history has taught us anything, it’s “beware the charismatic man.” It’s the people who inspire loyalty and devotion in others who are the most dangerous.

We got lucky with FDR. We may not be so lucky with the next one.

[I did not own a camera when I visited Hyde Park. All photos are in the public domain and pulled from various sources, including those links given below].



Home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt National Historic Site

FDR Presidential Library and Museum

FDR’s Ties to Georgia (University of Georgia site)

American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches

Google map to FDR’s home

Read Full Post »

The Death of Technology

In 1985, a group of engineers discovered a flaw in a design. Using engineer’s diligence, this team collected data, performed tests, ran some models, and came to a very scientific conclusion: under certain conditions, the most complex machinery in existence on Earth had a fatal flaw, and something needed to be done. They followed the chain of command, and told the appropriate management team.

That team ignored the report.

On January 28, 1986, the exact conditions specified in that report came to be, and the well-formulated set of conclusions derived by those same engineers six months prior came to pass.

Due to unusually cold conditions on the ground, the o-ring seals on two solid rocket boosters gave way. High-intensity flames erupted from the casing in the wrong place, forcing the booster into the main liquid fuel tank, rupturing the entire assembly. The resulting explosion and erratic expulsion of the two solid rocket boosters left a cloud of smoke whose shape has indelibly etched itself on the minds of all Americans (and especially all engineers). The passenger compartment of the vessel continued on its ascent until, at 65,000 feet elevation, gravity finally beat inertia. The compartment, and the seven brave souls still strapped inside, plummeted horrifically into the Atlantic Ocean. The vehicle known as the Space Shuttle Challenger ceased to exist.

That management team was wrong, dead wrong. I hope they’ve led miserable lives since the day they put facts aside for the sake of a government contract.

The engineering team, however, was right on the money. They did their best to avoid this tragedy, but were ignored. The lead man of that team, Roger Boisjoly, quit Morton-Thiokol and toured the country, speaking to engineering conferences about the value of quality; the failure of arrogance, ambition, and haste; and the ugly reality of corporate malfeasance. Roger died on January 6th, 2012. In my view, Roger and that entire team of engineers were American heroes.

I was working in the college computer lab on that day, trying to turn a Motorola 68000 processor into something other than a hotplate. We had the launch on the small TV, but were barely paying attention. By this time, shuttle launches were so routine the countdowns and announcements were as mundane as elevator music. But there is something special about the droning of repetitive launch instructions: the minute something is amiss, you know it. The tone changes: the monotone becomes the emotional, the drone of hard facts becomes the stuttering of uncertainty. Something was wrong. We turned, and saw the corkscrew plumes of death through that tiny screen.

My heart sank that day. Here I was, studying fervently to become a skilled technician. Technology was always my dream job, from the first time I saw Scotty fret over his dilithium chamber. I took apart my Pong game, my radios, the family TV. I taught people how to work their VCRs and had to constantly clean the gunk out of my stepbrother’s Nintendo. I was programming in assembly and machine language and BASIC, but was really a hardware weenie. Circuit boards, op-amps, laser diodes, these were the shiz-nit. I loved physics, excelled at mathematics, and, plain and simply, loved making things work.

Yet there I was, watching technology die.

It’s not that technology ceased to exist. Au contraire, we were at the very beginning of the greatest technological revolution ever. It would simplify our lives, improve our productivity, extend our life, and connect the world. One cannot even compare the technology of 1986 with today. Touch screens? Optical chips? Dense wavelength digital multiplexing? Microminiature cameras? Still highly theoretical, if that, back then. We’ve made tremendous advancements, that 16-bit processor I would soon turn to slag is now a mere wafer in the I/O chip of that crappy PC your grandma uses to play Scrabble.

But technology is still dead.

I say it’s dead because we don’t care for it. We don’t respect it. We don’t cherish it. We don’t put our heart and soul into it. We throw something together, slap a fancy label on it, shove it in an appliance, and then hope — not for it to work, but to make us a big, hefty profit. And if it doesn’t, oh well, right into the scrap heap. Look, a newer, shinier bauble just got released at E3!!!

The Challenger tragedy was my first experience with poor quality and the disinterest that leads to it. And look around you, what do we have today? Microsoft, the foremost manufacturer of operating systems since the early 80’s, still can’t make an operating system worth a shit.  American car companies suffered from decades of quality neglect, only recently turning themselves around (whether this trend continues remains to be seen), and some of the murmurings coming from airplane mechanics make your head spin. Union Carbide failed to properly maintain one of their facilities and kills thousands. BP and its shoddy suppliers dumped millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico (the environmental effects of which are still undeterminable); and the Japanese, once paragons of quality, can’t even apply their own earthquake remediation science to their own nuclear reactors! Technology, as bright-and-shiny as it is, fails us on a daily basis, often with disastrous results. Why is that?

It fails us because we don’t care about it. We don’t want to care for it, nurture it, respect it. We want to use it and abuse it and toss it away. Do people want that hand-crafted North Carolina furniture that will live longer than you? No, they flock to IKEA to buy that cheap-ass particle-board shit that’ll degenerate to it’s natural elements within 18 months (and exude toxic gasses the whole way). Cheapcheapcheap, and tosstosstoss. And God forbid if you want to apply quality to your  job. If you want to take the time to fine-tune that dilithium chamber for optimal performance, safety, and long life, you’ll be fired for wasting your time and energy that could be better spent polishing Powerpoint presentations that prove just how smart your executives are.

Quality is dead. And therefore technology is dead. And therefore, people are dead and will continue to die. God bless you, Roger Boisjoly, and any other engineer who has risked his career in the name of quality and safety.

[Photo of Roger Boisjoly is copyrighted to the New York Times.]

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »