Friday, July 29, 2011

Muse of the Week: Association

This post can be considered my studious avoidance of all-things-debt-crisis as at this point, the entire ordeal makes my head want to explode in frustration.

So: something light and summery!

For years now there has been much handwringing over the status of American community organizations. We are told we no longer gather in groups to share fellowship, resources, or any of the other benefits of life in community. There is truth to this. There are also several signs that some people are "turning back," if you will, by moving forward into new organizations based upon old models, from food co-ops to intentional communities.

Summer is fair and festival season across much of the United States, and as I read others' postings about their community celebrations and look forward to the grand parade of Newberg's Old Fashioned Festival tomorrow morning, I'm struck by the continuity I see between past and present.

Many of these festivals derive from attempts to boost local agriculture and create frameworks for celebrating shared experiences. In some cases, they derive from the organizations created by the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry and the Farmer's Alliance, both founded in the late 1800s. These were political advocacy organizations, fighting for the rights of farmers, for an expanded money supply that would make obtaining credit and repaying loans less onerous, for railroad regulation and so on. The Grange was even able to win the Supreme Court's recognition in 1876 that facilities including railroads and grain elevators were “clothed with a public interest." This decision helped facilitate passage of the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887. Perhaps their most important function, however, was social. The Grange and the Farmer's Alliance, and all the smaller guilds and cooperative organizations that sprung up across the United States as it grew and expanded in the late 1800s and early 1900s, were vehicles for belonging in regions of the country that lacked other social infrastructure. They allowed citizens to enjoy each other's company, to cooperate in barn-raisings and other mutual activities and to forge new regional distinctions.

Grange halls these days are likely to be venues for weddings and square-dance lessons rather than centers of political advocacy. Really, though, in providing the physical space for such activities they are continuing to provide one of their important historical functions. County and state fairs continue to provide opportunities not only for young people in rural areas to hone their skills, but they connect city folk to farmland and enable citizens to join together in community. Small-town festivals--and neighborhood festivals in cities--continue to celebrate unique regional identity and forge connections among generations.

I'll add a couple photos from the parade to this posting over the weekend... meanwhile, enjoy the opportunities summer provides to celebrate the legacy of American association and community organization!

Newberg VFW

St. Paul Rodeo Court

Kiddo and friends (small friend is distracted and slightly worried as the "Great Clips" mascot has just doused someone down the parade route with a bucket of water)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: The Party Line

Oregon's been in the news the past few days for the extremely unfortunate reason that our 1st District congressman, David Wu, has proven to be a complete and utter fool. Even more pleasant, guess which district I call home?


Why, one might ask, is such an individual elected? And, more to the point, reelected?

In my opinion, the answer has everything to do with the demise of the truly "representative" elected official. As our political parties have become more stringently ideological (contact me for a reading list if you want the historical background), our elected officials have marched ever more in lock-step with the political agenda of the parties and interest affiliations they represent. They fail to respond to the specific needs of their constituents. The result? Party-line voting becomes the only way to express even a modicum of choice as a voter. We can no longer be assured that by "voting for the individual," we will elect a representative who meets our region's needs. We can only choose a party that will more closely align with our perceived interests.

The result? Individuals like Rep. Steve Womack, Republican of Arkansas, who told reporters he'd had constituents calling all day yesterday and advocating tax increases. His response? "This economy is too fragile." The man is from Arkansas. Outside the bounds of the Walton clan I seriously doubt tax increases for the wealthiest Americans will have any impact at all upon Arkansans. Elected because a majority of his constituents believed the Republican Party would more closely align with their perceived interests, the voters of the 3rd District of Arkansas now have a representative who is refusing to represent the will of the people who sent him to Washington and advocate for them. This example comes from the right side of the political aisle, but it is not a problem specific to one party.

The only way to move on from the intransigence of the current political climate -- and the frustration of a situation like the Wu affair -- is to revive the practice of electing officials who will exercise independent political judgement that provides for their constituents' needs.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Muse of the Week: Connected

Interesting article on NPR about the increasingly integrated network into which devices like the iPhone are bringing us.

The author doesn't completely dismiss the idea that this 24-hour connectivity may have drawbacks, but he's rather condescending toward a graduate-student cabbie who observes that such devices have a downside, as well. The brave new world of always-on networking is something I've been pondering quite a lot lately. On the one hand, there are obvious benefits to the knowledge and capabilities such devices bring. (And I must admit I would love a phone with a data plan.)

I worry, however, that there are some significant limitations to the usefulness of such technology. Used well, it can do wonderful things. Used improperly, it does seem, as the cabbie says, to make us "stupider than ever before." We rely upon technology to tell us what our own good sense used to develop. GPS software, for example, is wonderful when we need to find somewhere new and complicated, but what favor are we doing ourselves when we fail to learn the dimensions of our landscape and rely upon electronic devices for basic tasks? We become seemingly incapable of living without stimulation. Need to wait a few minutes? Better turn on the "Angry Birds." We become so tightly woven into our online social networks, from Facebook to text-messaging to email, that we are unable to focus upon our in-person communication and experience the anxiety of worrying we have missed something the moment we put down our devices. Will the world end because we don't check Facebook for a few days? I highly doubt it.

So: while the best path will vary depending upon the individual, I suspect most of us would benefit from treading a line somewhere between the Amish and the author's Silicon Valley myopia. Technology offers exciting new horizons, but treated without care we can begin to lose the skills and interaction that make us fully human.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Centennial Mills

Interesting column in the Oregonian this morning about the Centennial Mills, a complex of mostly-derelict buildings owned by the Portland Development Commission and not doing much at the moment except rotting. Attempts have been made to renovate and reuse the buildings, perhaps for some type of foodie paradise (a very contemporary-Portland aspiration), but thus far all have failed.

The history of the buildings is a fascinating one. The site began as a single structure, serviced by clipper ships and producing flour from eastern Oregon farms. It survived the Depression years and boomed during the 1940s and 1950s, mechanizing in the process. By the 1970s and 1980s, however, foreign competition operating under less-stringent health and safety regulations rendered Centennial Mills noncompetitive. The city bought the 150,000-square-foot site in 2000, old office furniture, machinery and even grain stores intact.

Since then, the site has moldered. The barriers to successful reuse are clear; this is a huge complex, with old buildings and numerous safety issues. As a historian, however, what I find most intriguing--and troubling--about the history of Centennial Mills is what it indicates about our changing economy and the unintended consequences of a structure favoring lower costs above other factors.

This was a thriving industrial site that produced something of unquestionable good: flour. It did so according to American health and safety regulations; far from flawless, to be sure, but superior to many that replaced it. It gave Americans jobs, provided safe food, and contributed to the infrastructure not only of Portland's industrial and shipping economy but eastern Oregon's agricultural economy. In its place, the strongest proposal to date would have substituted new additions to the service economy. Yes, a local focus would have provided truck farmers with work, and this is a good thing, but it would feed yet again into a burgeoning population of relatively well-to-do Portlanders while continuing to fail in providing services to longtime residents in the poorer sectors of the community.

There is something broken here. I hope we can find ways to fix it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Muse of the Week: Compromise

A brief observation as we head off on a camping trip:

We spend our parental years teaching our children that they can't always get everything that they want, and that compromise is necessary. When they reach school age, teachers from elementary school through college offer the explanation that there are three branches of power in the federal government to preserve checks and balances and essentially mandate compromise. Moderation is built into the fundamental framework of the American political system.

And then we watch our elected officials steadfastly refuse to compromise.

It's frustrating, it's completely unproductive and it's downright un-American. And if we don't watch ourselves, we will entirely lose coming generations to the ennui of that disheartening realization that reality bears no relation to the principles they have been taught.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Greetings from...

It's an exceptionally busy week, but I hate to interrupt my regular postings now that they're underway. So, enjoy a vintage postcard of my father's hometown, Klamath Falls, Oregon:

[Photo credit]

I've attended many a Fourth of July parade on this street, albeit not with cars as nifty as these involved (except as parade entries). There was, however, a memorable inflatable pelican one year (Klamath Union High School teams are the "Fighting Pelicans"... there's a large, waterfowl-friendly lake abutting the town), and there was nothing quite like seeing a set of fighter planes from Kingsley Field come roaring down the sky, just above Main Street. The smells of sagebrush and juniper will always remind me of being a little kid, slightly sunburnt, going for a walk with my folks in the neighborhood behind Grandma and Granddad's house. Old growth in the north and west; sagebrush in the south and east. It's little wonder so many Oregonians are so firmly wedded to their home.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Muse of the Week: Vision

I found this great Frigidaire promotional film from the 1964 World's Fair on an American Historical Association blog (which I believe linked in turn to a podcast on the way we have envisioned the "future of food" over time): view film.

There are some seriously problematic elements in this film, from rampant ethnic stereotyping to blind faith in the possibilities of development (the section toward the beginning seemingly endorsing deforestation of rain forests is particularly alarming in this regard).

However: the blithe optimism and faith in technological progress that characterize this film have another dimension. It is arresting from a 21st century perspective to see Americans' mid-20th-century confidence in their capabilities to transform the world for the better. Yes, this is transformation within a specific frame of reference; Mother is still in the kitchen and dear old Dad is still carving the roast. Clearly the limits of imagination only extend so far. As well, the contemporary observer can point out unintended consequences right and left.

Despite all the problems, though, there's something to be said for trying. There's something to be said for an attempt toward a vision of the future that focuses upon possibilities.

One of the things I find most alarming about the current political climate is our persistent focus upon retrenchment and opposition. We are so busy assigning blame and talking about what we can't do that we forget to think about what we can. Some parts of the country are better at this than others. Oregon has actually managed to have a productive legislative session--a refreshing turn of events--but unfortunately other parts of the country have failed to follow this lead. The result? State government's ceased altogether to function in Minnesota, state representatives are running from each other in Wisconsin and the federal government is endlessly quibbling about how to avoid a default on the national debt without (at least until very recently... fingers crossed!) much willingness to compromise.

Is this the best we can do? I certainly hope not. What is our dream for the future?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Fireworks

Summer in Oregon doesn't usually arrive until July. Following a wet, cold spring like this one, warm weather and sunshine approaches the glory of a miracle. All the better for enjoying some nice, legal-in-Oregon* Fourth of July fun...

According to the Web site of the American Pyrotechnics Association (no, I'm not making this up), fireworks made their way to Europe from China between the 13th and 15th centuries AD. The Italians were the first Europeans to manufacture their own fireworks. This imported enthusiasm for black-powder explosions and the like made its way across the pond to colonial North America, where as early as 1731 the colony of Rhode Island imposed restrictions upon the proper use of fireworks. Fireworks were a part of celebrations commemorating the first anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in 1777.


* Non-airborne.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Birthday, United States!

We may have our foibles, but all the same, what a special place to live. And to study!

In honor of the holiday:

I'm thankful every day for the foresight shown by imperfect men in constructing a nation of promises. That universal rights business was powerful stuff; more powerful than they appreciated or envisioned at the time. We are so fortunate to have the ability to continue to grow toward the fulfillment of these promises.


Friday, July 1, 2011

Muse of the Week: The Vote

The 26th amendment to the United States Constitution, lowering the minimum voting age to 18, was enacted on this date in 1971.

Most election seasons are marked by commentaries bemoaning a lack of voter participation among young Americans, and it is true that voter turnout could be far better (this holds true for most age groups in the United States). Among those young people who are engaged and do vote, however, I have noticed some encouraging signs of hope. I am struck in the classroom by the pragmatism I see among my students. Yes, 18-to-22-year-olds are notoriously idealistic, convinced they hold the keys to ending society's problems in their generation. Lately, however, I observe signs that our youngest voters may have their feet more firmly planted upon the ground than many of their elders.

One example: I was lecturing last spring on the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and when we reached the realm of economic policy I noted that when the United States entered a recession following his election Bush opted to promote both cuts in expenditures *and* increases in revenue. While the latter betrayed his "Read my lips: no new taxes" pledge of the 1988 presidential campaign, Bush understood that government had more than one tool in its arsenal against economic recession and that using both might be the most prudent course of action. He chose to abandon dogma and make a pragmatic set of decisions geared toward the best interests of the country.

My students were flabbergasted that Bush had been willing to do this -- and vociferous in their endorsement of pragmatic decision-making to combat our current economic crisis. The prevailing commentary was a combination of sarcastic statements to the effect of "wow, you mean they actually were willing to use all the tools available to them?" and wistful desires for something similar to take place in the contemporary policy arena.

Young people know that they will inherit their elders' achievements -- and their problems. If the students I have taught recently are any indication, our future may well be in better hands than our present. Now, kids: get out there and vote! The sooner you do so, the faster we'll enjoy the benefits of your pragmatism.