The Trump Years: Day 56

Ordinary Americans will soon learn how they are to figure in the grand story of the future the GOP is always telling.  It’s a story that sees America and Americans as trammeled by rules that bug them and taxes so onerous they can’t sleep at night, that sees happiness as a precipitate left over after “school choice” causes public schools to evaporate.  The Republican narrative promises to rescue Americans from a tyrannical government and recent policy “disasters.”  Long-term security will grow rather than decrease once the nation is liberated from the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) and the tangible health benefits it guarantees.

This rhetoric is about to collide with physical reality.  Will a Republican-led Congress be so vain and rash as to abandon health guarantees that an entire nation has grown accustomed to?  Yes, Congress should act to constrain premium increases and restore competitive insurance options where they are lacking, but why deprive the nation of the happy consciousness that we’re all in it together, which is, at bottom, the signal benefit of Obamacare?  This is precisely what Republicans are most eager to destroy.

Under the present system, some well-off Americans are obliged to spend more for insurance than they would like; however, millions of Americans are newly insured, and hundreds of thousands are addressing health problems that have afflicted them for years.  Knowing that we are achieving something so gloriously humane makes the hassle and collective sacrifice worthwhile.  If Congress were wise, it would aim at enhancing this precious peace of mind.

Image: 80,000 miners listening to Theodore Roosevelt
(1905 daguerreotype by Underwood & Underwood),

from this source.

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Know Your Fears

know-your-fears-2

My husband told me he plans to write out a list of what he fears from a Trump presidency.  It makes sense, given how much fear is in the air.  Until each of us gets a bead on the nature of our fears, chances are it won’t matter much what we do.

We are exhausted from a long and tortuous election season.  Our nerves are wracked, our moral compasses are twitching.  Our guts are writhing from a roller-coaster ride that isn’t over but barely beginning.

The presidential contest was close, but it was more than that: it was polarizing, salacious, and unedifying.  It was omnipresent and momentous, hauling us all in together in a stinking net of civic obligation.  Then it ended with an ugly surprise, revealing that the nation’s ‘leading citizens’ don’t deserve their reputation as a leading class.  Today, American minds are still traumatized and reeling.  People are depressed, resentful, angry, disapproving.  Most of us sense further calamity brewing. 

Who likes the feeling of powerlessness that sets in after ‘the people have spoken’?  We, the electorate (yes, we’ll all complicit) have tipped the political order upside-down.

So, instead of bringing relief, the outcome of the election brings a new host of worries.  Americans must continue to be attentive and mitigate the various forms of damage Trump’s presidency may cause.  Fissures have opened up in both political parties; they, too, are divided and dangerously weakened.  The next few years will see ongoing tumult and crisis, making it all the more urgent to clarify goals and conserve energies.

American politics requires stamina and organization.  No one person or organization can fight every battle.  So know your fears; name the nature of the danger as exactly as you can.  Let the list you write define the wisest course to pursue.

Feel free to state what you fear most from a Trump presidency
and what you think people who share your fear should be doing.
If you’re viewing this on a laptop, the comments link is in the left sidebar at top.

The grief and anguish after Dallas

Preparing to mend Fort McHenry flag, Courtesy Library of Congress
What more is there to offer amid the voluble discourse of this sad week, when violence took the place of order and justice?  The United States: will the terrorism of Charleston and Orlando diminish them?  Will we descend to the habit of a shrug when children are murdered in our schools, when movie-goers are gunned down in a theater, when a cafeteria worker is shot to death in the middle of a routine traffic stop, when a sniper decides to channel his anger into killing police officers?

Sadly, we may grow indifferent if the spiral of unjustified violence continues much longer. We may shun the news for fear of having to look at the latest, outrageous use of quick-murdering guns. We may all cease to bat an eye at the latest victims, the latest place when guns were used to sort out human conflicts that deserved to be aired in the courts. And when that happens, we will have lost the semblance of unity that has kept us going until now. We will be just another war-torn country, with battle-lines too subtle to stay on the right side of.

Congress, endlessly preoccupied with the 2nd Amendment, has forgotten the larger purposes that, according to the Constitution, justify our federal government, particularly its charge to ‘insure domestic Tranquility’ and ‘promote the general Welfare.’  Will Congress act, in whatever ways it sees fit, to promote the internal peace and safety that Americans of all races crave, and that, by right, we are all entitled to expect?  Or will Congress forget its obligation to the nation, its members cravenly priding themselves on dedication to some lesser cause or party?

Changes in law are needed, but America also needs something more that’s harder.  Americans need to look into their hearts and examine whether they are living up to the potentialities of our civic culture, a culture that has allowed us to dwell with one another in a relatively open and unfettered way.  Americans need to recall the great civil tradition that has inspired generations to grow into a society where people who differ from one another nonetheless co-exist, enjoying ‘the blessings of Liberty’ and fitfully recognizing in one another our mutual humanity.  We have striven according to an Americanness that is deeper than either religion or skin.  This cultural effort will be imperfect always, but without it we will be condemned to grieve forever, anguishing over the most precious republican virtue lost.

Image: from this source.

The Only Time President Roosevelt Ever Consented to Pose Before a Kodak

The Only Time President Roosevelt Posed for a Kodak (1903; courtesy of the Library of Congress)
President Theodore Roosevelt, holding his top hat in one hand and flanked by two officers and an unidentified man, looks down at the photographer from the back of a railroad car.  The year is 1903.  The spontaneity of this picture registers how mainstream photography and photographic portraiture were changing in the wake of George Eastman’s revolutionary invention of the hand-held Kodak camera.

By then the Kodak camera had been around for fifteen years, but its impact was still widening and generating change. Because the Kodak was not just a new type of camera, but a new type of film, and one that gave the user freedom from having to learn film processing, it made picture-taking easier for everybody.  Amateurs began taking pictures like crazy.  The Kodak process also represented a big leap forward in terms of stop-motion photography, suddenly endowing pictures of living subjects with greater immediacy.

Those qualities shine in this marvelous photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt, taken during one of his myriad railway journeys.  Who was the photographer?  Was it a professional photographer assigned to cover him, or an ordinary American, perhaps even a woman, who successfully beseeched the President to pose just this one time?  Did he even consent?  His aides look amused, but Roosevelt himself looks positively put out.

Image: from this source.

Regarding the Ordinary American

A store with live fish for sale, vicinity of Natchitoches, Louisiana, July 1940. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.

A store with live fish for sale, vicinity of Natchitoches, Louisiana, July 1940. FSA photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.

In 1940, a federal bureau called the Farm Security Administration (FSA) dispatched photographers to various parts of the States to document the American people’s condition.  That the federal government would launch such an impolitic initiative is unthinkable today.  The pictures are uncomfortably realistic, many outright grim, the country being still on the ropes after that period of economic woe we proudly refer to as the ‘Great’ Depression.  That those in power cared enough to visit the nation’s suffering smacks of an unwavering democratic purpose unfamiliar now.

An FSA photograph by Russell Lee of a family in Pie Town, New Mexico.

Jack Whinery, homesteader, and his family, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940.  FSA photograph by Russell Lee.

The corpus of FSA photography stands as a magnificent portrait of America: penetrating and stark, troubling yet thrilling, capturing the country’s natural richness, its varied peoples and economy, its dilemmas and opportunities.

Going to town (FSA photograph)

Going to town on Saturday afternoon, Greene County, Georgia, May 1941. FSA photograph by Jack Delano.

For the most part, rural places and workers star in the FSA’s study of the mid-20th-century ‘political economy.’  A band of FSA photographers, who included Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, and Russell Lee, fanned out across the South and West, documenting rural small-town folk as they went about their daily activities.

Dugout house of Faro Caudill, homesteader, with Mt. Allegro in the background, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. Photograph by Russell Lee.

Dugout house of Faro Caudill, homesteader, with Mt. Allegro in the background, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. FSA photograph by Russell Lee.

Indeed, many of the photographs—some shot with up-to-the-minute color slide film—show people living in conditions little changed since the previous century.

Commuters, who have just come off the train, waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Mass., January 1941. Photograph by Jack Delano.

Commuters, who have just come off the train, waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Mass., January 1941. FSA photograph by Jack Delano.

Besides documenting church picnics, horse auctions, and hard-scrabble farming, FSA photographers visited urban and industrial regions, where they more often shot in black and white.  As the project went on, its output began to show the stimulus of World War II, when the demand for goods in war-torn Europe and the growth of war-related industries dramatically expanded the economy and work opportunities for many Americans.

FSA-houses-factories

Houses and factories.   Unidentified photographer.  From the FSA/OWI collection at the Library of Congress.

The FSA project represented an interesting experiment on the government’s part, to use an expressive medium (photography) to supplement the ‘facts’ expressed through social science.  Seventy-five years on, the FSA photos allow us to behold the ordinary American circa 1940, in a form more eloquent than statistics or sociology.  Moreover, the characteristic themes of the photographs, including the unequal effects of modernization, Americans’ changing relationship with nature and the land, and economic vulnerability, are problems we continue to grapple with today.

All images from the Library of Congress.
Click on an image to go to its source.

Rahm’s Chicago: A Nice Place to Visit

Chicago: The Drive at night, © 2014 Susan Barsy
Heading south on the Drive after being away, I feel a surge of pride—such a beautiful city!  I pull out my camera and begin taking pictures of the familiar buildings—the Hancock, the Drake, the Palmolive with its beacon on—the Gold Coast all dressed up for the night.  The beauty of Chicago, the myriad things that are right about it, evoke pleasure and pride.  The face of Chicago is deceptive, having only grown more beautiful with time. Continue reading

Small Red House

Small red house, © 2014 Susan BarsyThe South Shore Line, an electric train that runs from South Bend Indiana into Chicago, runs through some of the most beautiful places along Lake Michigan as well as some of the poorest and dirtiest.  The simple beauty of the dunes, marshes, and woodlands that line the Lake alternates with a landscape that industry and humble labor of many sorts have shaped.

The train runs along the beautiful old Calumet Trail, a prairie path that has existed since Indian times, following the curve of the Lake across boundaries separating town from country, blurring the distinctions of ownership and governing.  All of northern Indiana and Chicago’s southern hinterland are seamlessly joined.  On both sides of the train flow thousands of properties—neat and messy, beautiful and ugly, thriving and moldering—suggesting every condition of American society.

It’s a hard train ride because so many neighborhoods are decrepit and decaying.  So many places—and people—are just scraping by.  Our America is not a spotless picture-perfect place.  Off the political grid are thousands of people subsisting in garbage-strewn trailer parks, or living in ramshackle housing with windows missing.  They are exiles from the land of opportunity.  Embarrassing aberrations with no place in the progressive narrative of the world’s greatest nation, they are geniuses of survival, disciples of the art of making something out of nothing.  With luck, every day is the same, where social isolation limns the horizon.

Is this the nation our forebears intended us to become?

Looking In on Lincoln’s Inaugurations

Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln (1861), photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress

How fortunate we are that Lincoln’s presidency came just after the development of photography!  Of course, by the time he first took office in 1861, certain photographic processes, notably daguerreotypes, had been around for decades.  But only around mid-century did photography develop into a versatile, practical, and widely circulating medium.  As a consequence, whereas photographs of Lincoln’s predecessors in the White House are scarce, Lincoln and his political contemporaries had their pictures taken many, many times.  Some even became shrewd retailers of their mechanically reproduced selves.

The result, from the point of view of the present, is an opening-wide of the window onto history.  Whereas details of James Buchanan‘s 1857 inauguration come down to us mainly through artistic and verbal description (there is this one blurry photograph), good photographs documenting both of Lincoln’s inaugurals survive.  From 1861, for instance, there are several fine distant views of Lincoln taking the oath of office, though none of them is close enough for us to make out his great defeated rival, Senator Stephen A Douglas, who, according to historical testimony, is said to have been looking on from a seat nearby.

These photographs remind us of the immature, precarious state of the Union at the time.  The great addition of the new Capitol dome was incomplete, and, even as Lincoln moved to forward to assume his elected office, the elements that made up the nation were breaking apart.  Prior to March 4, 1861, when this picture was taken, seven pro-slavery states had seceded, and afterward, four more southern states would depart.  On April 12th, with the firing on Fort Sumter, the nation would descend into a state of war.

A closer view of Abraham Lincoln's Inauguration in 1861 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) of Abraham Lincoln in 1865

The crowd gathered for the swearing-in knew that they were witnessing a momentous scene.  The crowd was thick; most had furled their umbrellas; men, straining for the best possible view, mounted light poles and trees.  Motionless, they strained to hear the unamplified proceedings, the camera preserving the style of their hats and clothing.  Two men turn to face the camera, cannily.

The succeeding years saw a widening use of open-air photography, so that we know with some immediacy the Civil War’s corpse-strewn scenes.  Photographers like Alexander Gardner (by then working for Mathew Brady) tirelessly trailed the armies, unflinchingly recording the realities of camps, hospitals, and battle-fields.  By the time of Lincoln’s second inaugural, in 1865, the war was in its final months, slaves had been liberated, and the nation had become accustomed to seeing itself through the lens of photography.

The crowd at Lincoln's Second Inauguration, March 4, 1865 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

This wonderful photograph by Gardner captures the look of that later crowd.  Here, the people themselves, not the government nor the army, nor their most powerful representatives, are recognized as camera-worthy, as they gather on an inauguration day that is once again wet and muddy.  Great coats and banners billow in the breeze, as knots of spectators stand about, chatting or strolling as they please.  In time, they part to make way for the inaugural parade, in which Union regiments of both races proudly march.

Alexander Gardner, Stereographic view of the crowd at Lincoln's Second Inauguration, March 4, 1865 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) Lincoln's Inaugural Parade (1865)

Is it my imagination, or is there a touch of jubilation here, missing from the earlier proceedings?  Though the war had yet to end, the prospects for the Confederacy were dwindling sharply, and Americans who had fought to keep the nation together knew that their victory was sure.

Alexander Gardner photograph of Lincoln delivering his second inaugural address as President of the United States (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Bare-headed, Lincoln reads his message of reconciliation to a crowd radiating around him like magnetic filings, the dais overflowing with dignitaries.  A miscellaneous crowd of watchers stands beneath him, studying the crowd while listening.  It is a homely scene with little pageantry, suited to a federal republic that, though riddled with conflict, has endured trials to grow in confidence and power.  Outside the frame, the Capitol dome has been completed, and stands triumphantly capped with the Statue of Freedom.

All images from the collections of the Library of Congress.
Click on the images for more information and larger views.

Society

A street in Ireland, 1907 (Courtesy National Library of Ireland via the Commons on Flickr)

Among the hundreds of historical photographs I’ve looked at this week, this one stands out, jarring my sensibilities, its everydayness so strikingly at odds with ours.  Whereas many historical photographs appeal because of their near-resemblance to the life we know, others are fascinating in their strangeness, in their capacity to demand independent consideration.

So it is with this photograph from the National Library of Ireland.  It shows a muddy street in the port city of Waterford, where teamsters are conveying several carts of live turkeys up from the wharves.  Their destination may be a local poultry store, where the turkeys were likely to be sold to customers live, then kept at home and butchered by those in the kitchen for the holiday meal.  The date is December 16, 1907.  To have a rich turkey feast was then, as in Dickens’ time sixty years earlier, a singular joy and a sure token of prosperity.

There was a different appearance to a street.  The bricks of the gutter are evident, but the rest of the paving is scarcely visible beneath a thick layer of mud and animal waste, which night crews may have periodically combed smooth.  The only conveyances in sight are carts and wagons, though elsewhere, we know, automobiles were beginning to appear.  Besides teamsters hauling goods away from the harbor, the only other traffic is a pair of ladies in decent hats, driving themselves on their calls and errands.

The real point of interest, though, is along the curb, where we see a barefoot boy standing in the road.  He and his friend may be hoping to earn a few coins by helping the teamsters unload the turkeys.  Just a few feet away are a well-dressed lady and gentleman, and behind them are a trio of poorer, working-class women known as ‘shawlies.’  Whereas the lady has a proper overcoat or wrapper and a fur hat, the other women go about with their heads and bodies unceremoniously wrapped in shawls for warmth.  They carry baskets.

Class was different then, as clothing and shoes and manners marked out very visibly just how different one type of person was from the other.  Though the classes rubbed elbows much more intimately than they do today, the gulf between rich and poor was more evident and less was done to ameliorate it, to ease the suffering of the barefoot and hungry.

Image from this source.
Click on the image to enlarge it.