samedi, novembre 20, 2010

This American Thanksgiving

In a culture that seems so polarized, we sometimes forget to honor the best parts of our democracy -- sometimes more vision than reality, but real, nonetheless.

Wishing you the blessing of family, friends, and faith on Thanksgiving.

And recalling the women, and the men, who have kept the vision before us, even at the lowest points in our nation's history. Thank you for the light you carried so that we might see more clearly.

jeudi, novembre 18, 2010

Canvass White, or the myth of the level playing field

Do you know much about the 19th century inventor, Canvass White?

Thought not.

I would not know anything about Mr. White, either, if I hadn't picked up a book by the exceptionally readable and curious Bill Bryson. Author of A Walk in the Woods and oh yes, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson has just come out with a book on the history of the many household rooms and objects we most likely take for granted.

I'm loving At Home: A Short History of Private Life: if you like your history over easy with a little salt, run, don't walk to Barnes & Noble. Or Amazon. (We shall come back to these later).

Back to Canvass. When a number of very bright men decided to built the Erie Canal back in the day, they were a little stymied by the fact that none of them, says Bryson, had ever created a canal. In fact, none of the men assigned this job had ever seen a canal.

In an attempt to be helpful, young Canvass said he'd go over to England to study canals (as you know, for an island nation, England has many waterways.) For almost a year he walked up and down England, studying canals. In the course of his self-education, Canvass learned about a hydraulic cement created by one Reverend Mr. Parker (19th-century men of the cloth, with time on their hands, were fantastic at inventing things, but that's a whole other post).

After learning about hydraulic cement, Canvass White returned home, where he forumualted his own cement. This major step in modern technology, says Bryson, should have made White very wealthy.

But it did not -- instead, it made the manufacturers rich -- and the canal opened early, making lots of other people wealthy. White tried to claim his invention in the courts -- but the manufacturers had more power.

White, poor fellow, died in such a state of penury that his wife could barely afford, says Bryson, to bury him. "And that is probably the last time you will ever hear his name," he tells the reader.

Well, no. I hope we'll remember Canvass White because of his wonderful invention. But I also think he's an example of the fact that while we love to claim that America is a level playing field in which any boy or girl can grow up to be Bill Gates, or the President, that simply isn't the case.

The forces that work against the "little guy" are a lot more powerful than many of us like to admit -- creating a society in which wealth, and business monopolies, call the tune a lot of the time.

It is self-evident how much money can corrupt in Washington, and in our state capitols.

How much influence do the lobbyists of K Street have on our Senators and Congress? Why do corporations invest such huge amounts of money in electioneering?

But it's helpful to remember that we, too, fall into line very nicely when it is more convenient.

I don't go out of my way to shop at a small bookstore an hour away when I can shop offline at Barnes & Noble, or order my books on Amazon. It's much easier to go to the Mall and buy shoes at Macys than traveling to Wayne to a small independent seller. Gas is likely to be a few cents cheapers at the WaWa then the little gas station down the road -- so where do most of us go?

Why does any of this matter? Because we continue to subscribe to the myth that we live in a democracy in which anything is possible should we, rich or poor or middle-class, want to achieve it badly enough.

Sadly, that is less and less the case -- more often, it is the exception that proves the rule.

A toast to your memory, Canvass White.