Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A WEIRD HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES


I thought I'd muse over a question that used to bug me: the American 18th and 20th centuries were so different; what changed us? How could only a hundred years have made such a big difference? Even if you're not interested in this, I think you'll find the unusual view of American history expressed here to be fascinating. It has to do with utopianism.


As every schoolkid knows, a lot of immigrants came to America to escape religious intolerance in the old country. The unification of Germany where the Catholic South was awkwardly combined with the Protestant North; the puritans versus the Church of England: It was a mess. A lot of people who had the means bailed and came to America.




The English puritans were the original utopian immigrants. Except for their opinions about witches and sex, they were an admirable people, but I'm not sure I'd have wanted to live around them. They were a feisty lot. The English monarchy was glad to see them leave, and for good reason. Eventually they made war on the government, chopped the King's head off, and ended the monarchy. That's Cromwell, one of the puritan leaders, above; a no-nonsense kind of guy.




A lot of Christian farm socialists like the Amish came here in the 18th century. I hate to admit it but I don't know enough about European history to know what drove them to emmigrate, or why they chose to live in farm communes when they got here. The Amish were Swiss weren't they? What was going on in Switzerland that was so horrible? Why the emphasis on farm socialism? I'll make a guess that Calvin's Geneva which was a bit socialistic captured the imagination of people at the time, but I'm usually wrong when I make guesses like this.




The Amish communes in the New World prospered, maybe because the Amish were professional farmers and knew what they were doing. When urban American intellectuals like The Transcendentalists tried farm socialism (that's Brook farm above) the result was a disaster. The country is littered with small towns whose utopian origins and subsequent schisms and break-ups are reflected in their names: "Harmony," "New Harmony," "Truest Harmony."




The farm commune concept pretty much ended with the Civil War. It was on the decline anyway since so few of the farms worked, and during the war people had no attention for issues that weren't war-related.

After the war an odd thing happened. The mean-spiritness that had overtaken European utopians since 1848 now began to influence Americans. No more farms. No more lion lying down with the lamb. No more swords being beat into plowshares. No more winning converts by example. Increasingly there was a feeling that big issues were best settled by direct confrontation with one's enemies on a giant scale. The newest immigrants brought the latest utopian theories with them, including Marxism, radical unionism, and anarchism.



It's hard to imagine now but anarchists were a big intellectual force in 19th century Europe. The most drastic of them believed in killing people who worked for the government. The theory was that if every office holder felt threatened with death, then nobody would ever want to hold office, and the people could be truly free. Conrad wrote a novel about these guys. They were really creepy. A lot of people holding this belief escaped to America, one step ahead of the law.


Another European phenomenon that got shipped over was syndicalism and revolutionary unionism. By revolutionary unionism I mean unions whose true goal was to not to promote better wages and shorter hours, but rather a general strike that would topple the government.


Then there were the Marxists, but everybody knows about them already. Anyway, all these people came to America along with everyone else.



America became a kind of safety valve for Europe. We got their discontents.




Anyway, by the time Woodrow Wilson took office we were a changed country. We definitely weren't Marxist, or anarchist or syndicalist -- those guys lost, in the sense that they didn't get what they wanted -- but they were not without influence. The new Progressive Era adopted the utopian belief that small government was ineffectual.

When modern politicians call themselves progressives, people erroneously take the term to mean "those who desire progress." Actually, the meaning is more specific than that. Wilsonian progressives conceived the U.S. as a democracy more than a republic, and once elected they believed the president should have sweeping powers. The system of checks and balances was seen as somewhat outmoded. How, they reasoned, can a government solve problems if it's designed by checks and balances to be constantly at war with itself? Isn't it the job of government to identify problems and solve them? How can it do that if it doesn't have lots and lots of power? Just for the record, I think this is a terrible idea.

Anyway, it's not the system that Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and Washington had in mind. It's a change brought about by 19th century utopians. Interesting, huh?

40 comments:

Kelly Toon said...

Um, dunno what happened to your post, but I am dying to read your thoughts on this subject.

I am a Ferree on my mother's side, our ancestry goes back to the French nobility of the 13th century, from lower Normandy. In 1708, my Huguenot ancestor Marie Ferree fled persecution in France, and settled in Pennsylvania. Thousands of Hugenots fled Europe to America to practice their religion. I learned about this from my mother, Paula Ferree, and later confirmed it through this website: http://www.ferreereunion.com/history.htm

On my dad's side are German Anabaptists, a group which includes Quakers,the Amish and Church of the Brethren. My great-grandfather Woodford Woodford Peters was an orthodox Church Of the Brethren minister, and was president of a Brethren college in Kansas. I was not raised in a religious household, for when my grandfather Dale Peters was 14 years old, he stood up at dinner one night to declare his atheism. He went on to become a criminal psychiatrist, working with high-security prisoners. So even he was a minister, in a different sense.

Like so many these days, I consider myself a spiritual person rather than a religious one.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Kelly: Fascinating!!!!!! I never heard the word Feree before, but after I've gotten some sleep I'll look it up on the site you linked to.

BTW, how did you see what I wrote before it was published? Did I accidentally publish it?

Max Ward said...

First off, I think the amish are Dutch, not Swiss.

Second, I never thought about the anarchists and communists of the time having influence on Wilson. It is interesting. Wilson is one of the first presidents to go against the constitution, by establishing the federal reserve. Interesting thoughts! We are definitely in a different time then Jefferson, Madison, Washington and all of them envisioned. In the 18th and 19th century politicians used to get pinned up by their thumbs if they would go against the constitution, now Obama and McCain are actually promising they will go against it!

M. Altemark said...

www.iww.org i suppose still represent the syndicalism that is peculiar of the united states. not 100 000 members anymore, more like 3000 in the us + canada and 700 in europe and australia

http://www.nefac.net/
the north-eastern federation of anarchist communists seems to be the leading movement in action and thought amonst anarchists in the us. heavily influenced by the "Organizational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists" - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platformism

Kelly Toon said...

Eddie,

It had published halfway, it got up to the word "dogcatchers" and then it was nothing but images.

Ferree is pronounced Fehr-RAY. It is a family name, like Fitzjerald or Kricfalusi ;) The name goes back to medieval times, when we were blacksmiths and iron workers, hence FER for Iron.

Then on my mother's mother's side, and this has been confirmed by a number of family members in detail, my grandmother's grandfather was a cousin of Queen Marie of Romania. He was fleeing execution for draft evasion when he stowed away on a ship to America. He had a gold bar sewn into his jacket, with which he purchased a newspaper business in Pennsylvania. I haven't seen this lineage officially confirmed, but I will be investigating it further.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Max, Altemark: The Amish were Dutch? The ones I met a long time ago spoke German. Well, maybe you're right. I'll have to look it up. I'm embarassed to say that I didn't do any research before writing about them.

The subject was really to big to cover adequately in a few paragraphs, and I'm far from being knowledgable about the 19th century.

pappy d said...

One of the Puritans' motives in coming to the New World was to seek the freedom to impose their religion on others. The title of the 2nd picture down indicates that the prisoners are Quakers being led to their execution in Boston by Puritan soldiers. The foul republican practice of flogging & hanging religious minorities was halted with the Glorious Restoration of the monarchy (heh,heh! I'm a Stuart partisan).

Except for the Amish & Mennonites, the agrarian religious communities never seemed to last beyond a generation. I think socialism is an outgrowth of Christianity. Anyway, as a scientific form of economy, it's very bad science.

It takes people of faith to commit their lives to the moral ideal of equality. Even without a Creator to endow us with it, it's an emotionally appealing concept.

On the subject of American utopianism in the 20th century, I can't recommend this series enough! This British TV documentary changed all my thinking about the 20th century. It explains the origins of consumerism in the Wilson administration & why everything turned to crap with the hippies.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=8953172273825999151

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-678466363224520614&hl=en

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6111922724894802811&hl=en

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=1122532358497501036&hl=en

Jennifer said...

This is a fascinating post. It's a post that really makes me think.

Uncle Eddie, you are right - the Amish are of German and Swiss descent. They are not Dutch. They have often been called the "Pennsylvania Dutch" because the word "Deutsch" (German word for "German") was mistook for "Dutch".

pappy d said...

max altemark:

I had no idea there were stil Wobblies! What's really shocking is the idea that the anarchists are organised. They should assassinate their leadership & bomb their own Organizational Platform just on principle.

cwyatt said...

I have been obsessed with reading about the FLDS. They have the same names for their rural towns; Harmony,etc... Just as the idealistic settlers in the past. Things really haven't changed that much. Our country has always had groups of people, some very eccentric, trying to make a go of it designing their own laws and battling the government. "Under the Banner of Heaven. A history of Violent Faith" is a great book. And describes the modern version of what we saw 300 years ago.

My ancestors also emigrated for religious and political reasons. Sir Thomas Wyatt of England was beheaded for the Wyatt Rebellions against King Henry VIII. My ancestors who emigrated here very early on were very involved in the politics of this country and the beginning of what we now know as America. Some held political offices or were lawyers. They still do to this day. I come from a long line of politicians and lawyers. Liberal and conservative. Henry Clay and Cassius Clay were the most colorful characters.
Cassius Clay was Embasador to Russia and an Abolitionist. He used to shoot a cannon filled with pebbles, pens, and anything he could find in his desk, at tax collectors off of the balcony of his house. Henry Clay was more professional and was known as the Great Compromisor.He was very good at resolving conflicts in the capitol.
Great blog...so interesting with everything that's going on right now.

kellie said...

Coincidentally, Martin in the Margins wrote a good post yesterday that relates to this theme, The Dangers of Politics as Faith.

Caleb said...

Very interesting topic, Eddie.

Other than electric technology it seems like consumerism is one of the big differences between 1800's and now. Advertising that litters the horizon with products you probably won't use. Most modern religions seem more focused on selling you gear than getting you to some sort of enlightenment. Politics also feel like a business more than ever. Most politicians don't stand behind issues, they'll change their story like a bad salesman.

That is a good point about checks and balances slowing things down, but I've never met anyone I would trust with that much power. Even Superman would give Lois a cushy job and make Kryptonite illegal.

Drazen said...

I'm not sure if this fits in but wasn't there an archaic system of feudilism in farming in upstate NY for the early part of the 19th century that ended around 1950?
And to be honest when I read Ben Franklin
I can't imagine his system of democracy flying now..inventing things and and not taking out patents as its the good of the common man thats important and every one should benefit from them (hmm sounds socialist) .. religous freedom separate from government and laying down with "low" women never hurt him

Max Ward said...

hahaha sorry eddie, they are german and swiss. i figured they were dutch because they are called the pennsylvania dutch. sorry!

Drazen said...

umm
that was 1850 I meant

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Pappy: Thanks for what looks like interesting links! Sometime in the next few days I'll get around to them. Thanks also for reminding me that Google puts up videos.

jennifer: That sounds right! Thanks!

Cwyatt: Under the Banner of Faith? Sounds interesting! Thanks for the tip!

Kellie: Interesting article! I read half and will read the rest tomorrow!

Caleb: I tried to articulate the progressive idea using the most appealing words I could think of, because I wanted to be fair to them, but actually I think they were completely wrong. Checks and balances is a great system and we'd be fools to abandon it.

Jorge Garrido said...

Speaking of politics, Eddie, have you seen this picture yet? It's become something of an itnernet phenomenom.

THAT'S YOU!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

M.Altemark: There are so many types of anarchists. Amazingly some anarchists used to be frequent allies of the communists, even though the their beliefs are completely opposed, and even though the communists detested them. I'm always amazed when I see the red and black flag, indicating the socialist and anarchist synthesis.

I absolutely can't stand Marxism but I have nothing against socialism when it's not compulsory. It would be fun to live in a society that was peppered with voluntary communes of all sorts.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Jorge: Haw! That IS me, me and Tom Minton! Thanks for the link!

Anonymous said...

I heard you know Sam Simon Eddie!
Him and Matt Groening had a falling out but I think he was largely responsible for the best aspects of classic Simpsons and hiring its best writers.

You were caricatured on the Simpsons, how well did you know people that worked on the show and what do you think of it in general.
Classic Simpsons that is, not stuff after season 9 when it became unwatchable

Anonymous said...

That Joseph Conrad book sounds fascinating! Whats it called? I can probably read it on project Gutenberg

Mr. Trombley said...

Dear Sir,

This is only loosely related to the topic but have you ever read a book called "You Can't Win"?

It is an autobiography written by outlaw Jack Black, but the book is really (and probably unknowingly) about the end of the 19th century. The book has an overlong introduction then gets interesting very quickly. It is astonishingly well written, and I highly recommend it.

The only copies in print can be found here:

http://www.akpress.org/1998/items/youcantwin

CWyatt said...

It's Under the Banner of Heaven : A History of Violent Faith. It's pretty intense and gets into mostly Mormonism.

Sam Simon, Matt Groening, and James Brooks got great writers and contributed to the writing at the beginning of the Simpsons. One of my favorites was Conan O'Brian. The scripts were so good that you would laugh out loud while reading them. But, the directors: Wes Archer, David Silverman, & Rich Moore actually added and improved the stories through their amazing storyboarding. Then the extremely talented group of layout artists (each director had a team of layout artists) did amazing key animation. And in a lot of cases in the early years, animated entire scenes. The VoiceOver actors were and still are funny. The designers and color key artists were super talented.
Since 1988, when the series started, the original crews have left, returned, and moved up to different jobs. The writers have come and gone, but still maintain Matt's vision.
I liked the first few seasons myself, but maybe because those were the seasons I was on the show.
When I watch now, it still makes me laugh. The parodies are brilliant! Still great writing, just a little different.

pappy d said...

I'm going out on a limb here, but I'm going to assume the Conrad story Uncle Eddie refers to is "Secret Agent" which is also a film produced by & starring Bob Hoskins. A young Christian Bale does an exceptional job playing a retard. Eddie Izzard(!) is the pompous a-hole Russian ambassador. Best of all, (& especially if his anarchic performance style gets on your nerves) Robin Williams as the professor; an anarchist whose academic theories of revolution grind up against the bleak reality of 19th century London. He seems like a character only Conrad could have written. Amazing performances by everyone except Patricia Arquette who is horribly miscast. The direction is kind of Masterpiece theater, too & the flashbacks don't translate to film very well.

Wait! No! But I swear this movie doesn't suck!

Conrad's short story, 'The Anarchist' doesn't deal with anarchism.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Pappy: Boy, I forgot to answer the request for the title of that book! Yes, it was Secret Agent and the movie version of it definitely did not suck.

Mr. T: My library only has one reference copy of the Jack Black book, but I'll get to see it one of these days, brobably the next time I'm downtown.

I may already have read it. A long time ago I came across the autoboiography of a thief who worked around the turn of the century, and had escaped from prison at least once. He was thief of opportunity. If he happened to pass a farm house with no cars outside, he'd stop and burglarize it. It was a great book.

I should look for my copy of Willie Sutton's autobiography.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Kelly: I read the rest of the Feree story. Fascinating!

Anon: I don't watch the Simpsons because it doesn't have much to do with animation, but Sam Simon was an exceptional writer. Ask Tom Minton about Sam and I having a connection to Jim Carey's "Duck Factory."

Mr. Trombley said...

Dear Sir,

That's not it. Jack was a jewel thief.

CWyatt said...

OK Eddie...I cannot believe what you just said!
The Simpsons has nothing to do with animation??!
I know the writers used to think the artists and animators had nothing to do with the show. But, I never thought I'd hear that coming from an animator!
Were you there at Klasky or Film Roman?? I remember, sheesh, and even animated, assistant animated, and cleaned up animation plus animating backgrounds. I remember using 12 and 16 field paper. I remember re-drawing scenes many times over because of changes writers would make long after we had gotten the acting worked out, or background worked out.
We were there 6 or 7 days a week until the wee hours of the morning. Everything was meticulously worked on.
The directors, especially Brad Bird, were so amazing! They could come up with the greatest gags and draw anything!
The schedule was brutal trying to get 1/2 hour episodes out for airdates. We cut it really close sometimes. The writers were always respected, but the animators, who were underpaid, overworked, and pumped out amazing work every day, were not respected.
Not sure where you got this idea that The Simpsons has nothing to do with animation.
Wow!

Anonymous said...

It sucks how far off our society is from the vision the founding fathers had for America.

There is a large progressive European nation inside America, They really should have nipped Fundamentalism in the bud cause the Bible Belt has ruined our political system and culture

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

CWyatt: I didn't mean to demean the good work done by the Simpson's staff, it's just that for me real animation is what Rod Scribner, Tom McKimson, John Sibley, and Jim Tyre did.

CWyatt said...

SNOB
And are we Real artists?
Or were the cavemen in France the Real artists?

Silly Eddie

Anonymous said...

Matt Groening was obsessed with making the Simpsons as uncartoony as possible, he even made rules like "homers mouth cant grow larger than the food hes eating when hes gorging himself" and drew up guides for how wide his mouth was allowed to open.

The cartooniness of a lot of the funniest gags was something the writers had to fight to get on the show.

I think the Simpsons should be compared more to live action sitcoms like Seinfeld and Cheers , as well as Monty Python and Sctv than to Classic animation

Anonymous said...

I disagree.
But, everyone has their own opinion.
Anonymous should state his/her name.

CWyatt said...

Eddie, you're loving this argument...

See, this is why I need a job ASAP! I need a project to work on.

One last comment to "anonymous"....
If you weren't on the Simpsons, then you really have no idea how things worked. Sam Simon was all the way over in Culver City at Fox. The writers were there. Klasky was in Hollywood. The first time I met Sam was at an Emmy party. He was nowhere near the animators. Only the directors
I dare anonymous to tell David Silverman about the mouth charts. I have some of the original papers that show the animator how the chars are drawn and what kinds of expressions we used and could add to. They are nothing like what you say.
The Simpsons were supposed to be animated as if they were hard rubber. Wes and David experimented a lot on the shorts and got to know the chars before starting the series.
As far as what Matt wanted and how annoying that was to someone (who, I have no idea)..... It was HIS show!!
Matt was always an advocate for the artists whenever the writers wanted things redone.
The writers were live action writers and had no idea how to write for cartoons. They were traditional sitcom writers. I thought they were awesome and still are. It introduced a whole new way to watch animation (besides the Flinstones).
In my opinion, there are many ways to animate and create. Not one way. It takes talented artists to create anything worth watching. Animation is Soooooo much work and no one really knows what it takes to make a show successful or not. I learned more from the directors on the Simpsons than anything I've learned in the last 20 years.
I always find there's something to learn and grow from in the most unexpected places.
Good luck with that closed-minded attitude.

Anonymous said...

My problem with Matt Groening is that he still thinks the show is as great as ever and isnt incensed at how unwatchable its been for 8 years.

He did come up with the look of the show and the original characters, but the writing style and heart of the show came from Sam Simon and the sense of humor came from the genius writers he hired like George Meyer and Jon Swartzwelder.

Im sure hes a great person but I think the Simpsons succeeded in spite of him

CWyatt said...

anon: It takes a lot of people to make a cartoon.

That's amazing that you know what Matt thinks.
I wish I had that skill.
I only know what I think.


Who is this anonymous guy?

Anonymous said...

Matt has said he still thinks the show is as fresh as ever, its not my fault you took the animation equivalent of a career in advertising and are stranded on Mt. Kilamanjaro.

The Simpsons animators were important but important in the way the gaffers and Best Boys and Wardrobe designers were, absolutely vital to the production but if they quit theyd just replace them with other technicians whod have done the exact same job

Anonymous said...

Are you Carol Wyatt who did color work on the Simpsons? You said your work can be found on reruns of the Simpsons on your website.

You must agree that the colors on the show today are neon and garish compared to your work. I can instantly tell Im watching a classic episode because the colors have an earthy muted quality to them that doesnt burn out my retinas as todays shows do.

If that is your work then I take my hat off to you. I agree that the direction of guys like Silverman and Brad Bird gave a cinematic quality to the show that is lost today.

Im sure Matt Groening is a very kind person that treated everyone who worked on the show like gold, Im not calling the guy a jerk. I just think that other people deserve more credit for what made the show great and he should be criticising it for letting the show become an unwatchable shadow of itself

Anonymous said...

In the second last comment I was under the impression you were someone whod wasted 20 years of your life as a simpsons animator

Anonymous said...

I meant to say that Gaffers and Best boys were important to the production of the Godfather though obviously not the driving creative force in the 3rd to last comment