Freedom Isn’t Free — Or Always Pretty

Posted July 7th, 2011 at 1:27 pm (UTC-4)
9 comments

Children’s first exposure to the freedoms that Americans cherish sometimes comes not from kindly parents or wise teachers, but from an obnoxious jerk insulting someone or cursing at something.  Ranting till the veins bulge in his neck.

If confronted, the loudmouth snaps back, “Yeah, well, it’s a free country.”

Indeed it is, as we reminded ourselves and the world during our Independence Day festivities this past weekend.  Not only do we treasure — and millions elsewhere long to enjoy — our freedoms, but our heroes all too often die to preserve them.

The Korean War Veterans Memorial honors those who died in what is sometimes called "The Forgotten War" because it was sandwiched between World War II and the War in Vietnam.  (jepoirrier, Flickr Creative Commons)

As a simple statement, etched on a wall abutting the contemplative Pool of Remembrance at the Korean War Veterans Memorial here in Washington reminds us, “Freedom is Not Free.”

Before all else, the Bill of Rights appended to the U.S. Constitution guarantees Americans’ freedom of speech.  But tension is growing between that right and words that offend — or used to offend when we were less tolerant of gutter talk and lewd behavior.

In 1919, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while freedom of speech is exalted, it is not unlimited.  We may not shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater.  Nor, according to a later ruling, may we legally burn a cross on a person’s lawn or incite a crowd to violence.

Yet burning an American flag, equally loathsome to some, is considered a permissible exercise of free speech.

Some anti-gay protestors have chosen the funerals of U.S. service members at which to make their point.  (@mjb-fl, Flickr Creative Commons)

Some anti-gay protestors have chosen the funerals of U.S. service members at which to make their point. (@mjb-fl, Flickr Creative Commons)

In the 1970s, hate-spewing neo-Nazis were given the OK to march through Skokie, Illinois — where one in six residents was a Holocaust survivor.  The Nazis never showed up, but the Reverend Fred Phelps and his followers are much in evidence in equally volatile surroundings today.  Phelps is a disbarred lawyer and self-styled Baptist preacher — self-styled because no Baptist denomination recognizes him.  He and his followers despise gay people.  “God hates fags,” they scream — most provocatively and insensitively at the funerals of U.S. servicemen and women killed abroad.

Whether or not the soldiers are thought to be gay, the Phelps brigade attributes their deaths to God’s wrath against Americans for tolerating homosexuality.

And into this volatile mix have roared muscular motorcyclists, calling themselves the “Patriot Guard Riders.”  They menace Reverend Phelps and his crowd — escalating already-raw emotions at what were supposed to be solemn farewells to the nation’s heroes.

Neo-Nazis marched on the federal building in Phoenix, Arizona, last year to protest a judge's decision to weaken anti-immigrant legislation.  (JohnKit, Flickr Creative Commons)

Neo-Nazis marched on the federal building in Phoenix, Arizona, last year to protest a judge's decision to weaken anti-immigrant legislation. (JohnKit, Flickr Creative Commons)

Courts have steadfastly protected Reverend Phelps and his followers’ right to assemble and speak, however vilely.  But in many cases they have imposed a no-picketing buffer zone between the Phelps crowd and mourners.  Nonetheless, one cannot miss their coarse chanting at 46 meters (150 feet).

Just how hateful can speech be and still be protected?  Read on.

In 2006, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia struck down a law aimed at shielding children from Internet pornography.  The court affirmed earlier decisions that even though pornography offends most people, porn on the Web is free speech, protected by the First Amendment.

In many Internet mailboxes — including some easily accessed by children — what used to be a trickle of unsolicited porn advertisements has turned into a torrent.  In part, that’s because the Internet has become a plum market for pornographers.  A few years ago, Datamonitor, a New York-based research company, estimated that Internet users spend more than $3 billion a year paying to see porn on increasingly explicit websites.

Looking for still more customers, porn website owners are inundating the Net with what is called “porn spam” — often laced with graphic sexual photographs — as a tease to visit paid sex websites. They fire off spam like a random shotgun blast to millions of e-mail addresses at once. Read the rest of this entry »

25 and Counting: Thoughts on a Worklife

Posted July 1st, 2011 at 4:17 pm (UTC-4)
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The other morning, VOA’s Central News Division chief handed me a certificate, “suitable for framing” as they say, that noted a milestone — hard evidence that careers are marathons, not sprints.  It, and a handsome eagle pin that went with it, acknowledged my reaching 25 years of government service, all of it here at VOA.

“Long time,” I told her.  “Been here longer,” she replied, adding her thanks and congratulations.

What would become VOA's headquarters building, under construction in 1941.  No, I wasn't working here then.  But I was born a year later.

What would become VOA's headquarters building, under construction in 1941. No, I wasn't working here then. But I was born a year later.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that this got me thinking about my life of work.  And even more, about others’.

I think of my late father-in-law, a gifted clarinetist — the best in all of Dayton, Ohio, according to accounts — who gave up all but part-time musical gigs to take a monotonous civilian job at the air force base in town.  A witty, creative man, he hated every day as a bureaucrat but kept at it for more than 40 years because he knew music in a middlin’-sized town like Dayton was too unstable a calling for a husband and father of two young girls.

I think of former colleagues from my years in commercial broadcasting — an occasionally glamorous but notoriously fickle and ruthless business in which gifted people are dismissed just because a new boss blows into town, or because a programming guru half a continent away declares a change in the station’s format.  There’s no need for many news people at a station that, on the stroke of midnight one day, switches to playing golden oldie tunes or “bubble gum” music.

The limelight falls on the deejay.  So does the axe, often many times.  (popculturegeek.com, Flickr Creative Commons)

The limelight falls on the deejay. So does the axe, often many times. (popculturegeek.com, Flickr Creative Commons)

Like curs kicked to the curb, young and resilient broadcasters who are tossed aside pick themselves up, move themselves and often others to new places and stations that may be a rung higher on the career ladder, and start anew.  Before they know it, many who are in sales or are “talent” — a half-mocking word for disc jockeys and talk-show hosts — have grown old (50 is ancient in that business) and find there’s no place on the ladder for them at all.

I think of the people who’ve been here at VOA not just 25 but 40 or more years.  And there are a few.  “Lifers,” we call them.  People often judge them harshly.  They should retire and enjoy life, their friends say, not be slaves to their work to the day that somebody wheels them out on a gurney.  Their critics don’t really know these people, of course, don’t know what drives them or where they get fulfillment and satisfaction.

 

Rocks of Age

I just got the figures to back up my suspicion from the previous paragraph, sent to me by Jack Welch, one of our VOA executives:  “We have about 450 employees who have been here for 25 or more years, 200 of whom have been here for 30 or more years, and 20 for 40 or more – so you have a lot of older siblings.”

Makes me feel like a spring chicken.  One of the reasons we have so many people who have made long, long careers here is VOA’s high (around 40 percent) number of foreign-born journalists who populate many of our language services.  They stick around not just for the work, the benefits, or the relationships built over the years, but also for another pragmatic reason:  There aren’t too many places in the United States where a primarily Urdu- or Swahili- or Thai-speaking journalist can find comparable work.

Now back to our regularly scheduled blog.

The lifer.  Actually, if you know your U.S. history, you may know who this is.  I'll tell you in the last paragraph of this posting.  (Chuck "Caveman" Coker, Flickr Creative Commons)

Work for pay defines some people.  Puttering around the garden, re-shingling the roof, building a model airplane is not the same.  Making a contribution to a work product — perhaps even making a difference in the community or nation or world, to use a shopworn cliché — is hard-wired in most high achievers.

I think back to the “mid-career” seminar that I attended 15 years ago, in which our agency brought in former employees to explain that retirement is not always the romp that it’s cracked up to be.

One speaker described a meticulous supervisor, forced out by a mandatory retirement-age provision.  He went home and immediately began reorganizing the household.  As you might expect, this did not sit well with his wife — the former queen of all she surveyed in that sphere.  When she caught him alphabetizing the soup cans, she ordered him to go find a volunteer position somewhere, just to get him out from under foot. Read the rest of this entry »

America’s High-Speed Rail: ‘I Think I Can, I Think I Can’

Posted June 28th, 2011 at 7:07 pm (UTC-4)
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A dozen or so years ago, Carol — my photographer wife whose images often grace this space — was hired by Amtrak to go to Pueblo, Colorado,  where the passenger railroad was testing America’s version of the Japanese “bullet train.”  Although our nation was embarrassingly late to the party, high-speed train travel was finally pulling into the station.

The Acela Express flashes past at the Pueblo test course.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The Acela Express flashes past at the Pueblo test course. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Carol photographed what came to be called the “Acela Express” inside and out, close-up and from a distance, as it tore, seemingly noiselessly, around a closed test track.

Some of the test coaches were evaluated inside without their seats and other furnishings.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Some of the test coaches were evaluated inside without their seats and other furnishings. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Amtrak, the national passenger rail service cobbled together by the federal government from money-losing private passenger lines grudgingly operated by freight railroads on government orders, was about to get a dramatic makeover.

Amtrak then brought an entire Acela Express train to the Washington-to-Boston “Northeast Corridor” for further testing, and I went along while Carol photographed it in what would be its working environment.  It was quite an experience for two people who, years earlier, had booked what was intended to be a nostalgic and romantic train trip from Washington to New Orleans on Amtrak’s tired old “Crescent” route.

Like its midwest counterpart, "The City of New Orleans," the Crescent's route ended in the old "Crescent City," whose name derives from a big bend in the river right beside the French Quarter.  (Katchooo, Flickr Creative Commons)

That turned out to be a wretched ordeal in which, a dozen times or more, the hot, stuffy, lurching Amtrak train was shunted onto sidings to allow even slower-moving freight trains to pass.  No wonder the Crescent ran three or four hours late each direction.  A suave journey on America’s version of Europe’s elegant Orient Express it was not.

When it comes to expanding high-speed passenger service, Amtrak is stuck.  Freight railroads own the tracks, not just from Washington southward but also just about every other place outside the Northeast Corridor.  Amtrak even calls freight carriers and local commuter lines its “host railroads.”   Even if it could miraculously get control of some of the tracks, they’re engineered for dawdling freight trains and would require billions of dollars’ worth of improvements.

By contrast to the bleak reality elsewhere, our introduction to the Acela Express in the Northeast in 1999 was astonishing.  Since Amtrak had purchased the entire right-of-way between Washington and Boston, the snub-nosed machine seemed to fly, never once having to move aside for some clattering freight.

The aerodynamic Acela Express seems to sneak, rather than rumble, into stations.  (Nicholas STAMBACH, Wikipedia Commons)

The aerodynamic Acela Express seems to sneak, rather than rumble, into stations. (Nicholas STAMBACH, Wikipedia Commons)

Most memorable was the very start, as we stood in the New Carrollton, Maryland, station outside Washington, waiting for the speed train to arrive.  Carol told me it would come stealthily, and indeed it seemed to dart in soundlessly, like a stainless-steel hummingbird.  And there was no chug-a-chug-chug straining to get going again.  Whoosh, like a puff of smoke, we were on our way. Looking at towns and stations and geographical features out the window was pointless.  They were kaleidoscopic mélanges rushing by.  I could only imagine the blur outside an even faster bullet train.

Since it was operating along a winding route originally built for steam locomotives, the express could rarely stretch out and gallop.  Once it entered service, travel times from Washington to New York (just under 3 hours) and New York to Boston (about 3 hours, 20 minutes) were only marginally faster than on Amtrak’s conventional “Metroliner” service.  Acela Express could barely top 145 kph (90 mph) in heavily populated stretches of New England. Read the rest of this entry »

We’re No. 1? Not in World Expos

Posted June 24th, 2011 at 1:50 pm (UTC-4)
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Last time, in a grand tour of the six great world’s fairs hosted by the United States in the single decade of the 1930s — Depression times, no less — I pointed out that it has been 27 years since tour nation threw such a party for the world.  And there won’t be another one of “Category One” stature — or what Jack Masey, about whom you’ll read, calls “Super Bowl-level” fairs — on U.S. soil for nine more years at least.

These days, blockbuster world’s fairs are sanctioned only once every five years, and Milan, Italy, has locked up the bid for 2015.

What in the world, so to speak, is going on here?

I remember taking this gondola ride over the Mississippi River from and back to the Louisiana World Expo site in 1984 many times.  (ExpoMuseum.com)

I remember taking this gondola ride over the Mississippi River from and back to the Louisiana World Expo site in 1984 many times. (ExpoMuseum.com)

Since 1984, when the United States last assembled a grand international expo — in New Orleans, Louisiana, where I fortuitously happened to be living at the time — our country has hosted two Summer Olympics (Los Angeles in 1984 and Atlanta in 1996) and one Winter Olympics (Salt Lake City in 2002).  And 14 world’s fairs have convened in other countries.

Last year, 192 nations — more than most people even knew existed, let alone could name — participated in the “Better City, Better Life” world expo in Shanghai, China, for which 73 million people passed through the turnstiles.  World’s fairs are neither dead nor a relic of some gas-lamp era, even though the Shanghai event got about as much coverage in mainstream U.S. media as the 2010 Cricket World Cup.

(That was a trap for my unawares U.S. readers; there was no world cricket championship last year.)

So why has the U.S. of A been wandering in the world’s-fair wilderness?

The answers are complex, controversial, and critical to assessing our chances of getting back into the exposition business.

Bye, Bye, B.I.E.

In 1928, 35 nations, convening in Paris, established the “Bureau of International Expositions” to oversee world expos and select the winning sites.  But in the late 1990s, the United States dropped out of the B.I.E., seemingly in a huff.

A stairway to international exploration at the 2010 world expo in Shanghai.  (peruisay, Flickr Creative Commons)

A stairway to international exploration at the 2010 world expo in Shanghai. (peruisay, Flickr Creative Commons)

Actually, the U.S. State Department was pushed out of it by Congress, whose powerful Senate Appropriations Committee was controlled by isolationist-minded Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina.  He opposed what he called “foreign entanglements” and even led an effort to de-fund U.S. participation in the United Nations.

State, and its United States Information Agency (USIA) component that worked on world’s fairs, were hamstrung by legislation that specifically forbade it to budget expenditures on world’s fairs, although its critics say this has been a convenient excuse for backing away from these complex and expensive propositions; they find nothing in the law to prevent the department from pushing Congress to authorize such funds.

This magazine advertisement invited happy Americans to sample the Century 21 Exposition's "six wonderful months" in Seattle in 1962.  (JoeInSouthernCa, Flickr Creative Commons)

But here’s a key point today: While the United States doesn’t need B.I.E. membership or its permission to declare a world’s fair on our shores, most fair-watchers believe other countries wouldn’t come without it!  The B.I.E. would sanction a competing expo elsewhere, and the nations of the world would be compelled to take their big pavilions there.

“An expo without the B.I.E. is just an oversized Epcot,” says Houston businessman Manuel Delgado, a driving force behind the push to get a world’s fair for that Texas city in 2020.  Futuristic Epcot is one of four theme parks at Walt Disney World resort in Florida.

Lousy Reviews

The ’84 New Orleans expo left a bad taste in the mouths of just about everyone but fairgoers like me, who remember its rides and gumbo and pelican mascot fondly.  The fair ran just two years after a smaller world expo in Knoxville, Tennessee, that barely broke even and fell short of attendance expectations.

But it was a smash compared to the New Orleans disaster, which ran out of money midway, saw its international pavilions padlocked by banks as collateral until debts were paid, and had to be bailed out by both the feds and the state.

The entrance to the New Orleans expo was inviting, as were the food, exhibits, and entertainment.  Not inviting enough to draw break-even crowds, however.  (Carey Akin, Wikipedia Commons)

The entrance to the New Orleans expo was inviting, as were the food, exhibits, and entertainment. Not inviting enough to draw break-even crowds, however. (Carey Akin, Wikipedia Commons)

Projecting 12 million visitors; the Louisiana expo got 7 million.  It predicted $113 million in ticket revenue; less than half that was realized.

“New Orleans is the ghost that has haunted the world-expo experience of the United States ever since,” says John Grubb, chief of staff of the Bay Area Council, a business group that is mounting an effort to land a world’s fair for California’s Silicon Valley in 2020.

So momentum for U.S.-based fairs — which had flourished in New York City; Seattle; San Antonio; Spokane, Washington; and twice in Los Angeles after the grand decade of the 1930s — ran out of steam.  As Montana State University historian and expo expert Robert Rydell puts it, “There was a sense after the fairs of Knoxville and New Orleans in the 1980s that the exposition medium had kind of lost its muscle force and that people were just not that interested any more.

“By the 1990s, the end of the Cold War had removed the sense of anxiety that fueled competitive fairs.  There seemed to be no need to demonstrate to the rest of the world why American values were so important.  There seemed to be no one, really, to compete with.”

 

The "Space Needle" that was the centerpiece of the Seattle expo became the Northwest U.S. city's most famous landmark.  That's Mount Rainier in the distance. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Corporatization

Before the big funding freeze, trade exhibitions and U.S. pavilions at world fairs had been largely paid for with federal money and had been carefully put together by government exhibition experts. Read the rest of this entry »

World’s Fairs Then, Now, and Whenever

Posted June 17th, 2011 at 4:42 pm (UTC-4)
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Take a look at the line of fairgoers waiting to get inside the General Motors building at the 1939 New York World's Fair.  (National Building Museumcourtesy Albert Kahn Family of Companies)

Take a look at the line of fairgoers waiting to get inside the General Motors building at the 1939 New York World's Fair. (National Building Museumcourtesy Albert Kahn Family of Companies)

Imagine a time of wonderment when lofty dreams and sleek designs and magical technology could inspire a worn and dejected nation to dream.

Beneath the compelling figure that dominates the Golden Gate expo's guidebook is a depiction of its Treasure Island locale, including the "Tower of the Sun."  (National Building Museum)

World’s fairs had that power in the 1930s — the decade that bore the brunt of the Great Depression — when six U.S. extravaganzas lifted spirits and gave our people the spine-tingling promise of what one of the fairs’ biggest corporate sponsors, General Electric, called “happier, more pleasant living” to come.

There hasn’t been an American world’s fair for 26, going on 27, years, since the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition changed the face of New Orleans’ decrepit riverfront for the better.  What’s become of U.S.-based fairs and our nation’s participation in ones abroad is a yeasty, but separate, subject that I’ll explore next time.

Right now, I ask you to travel with us, back three quarters of a century to a simpler, more elegant and idealistic, but economically bereft time.  The “us” includes Deborah Sorensen and Laura Burd Schiavo, who together assembled a historical feast for the imagination — an exhibit called “Designing Tomorrow” about America’s fairs of the ’30s — at the National Building Museum here in Washington.  And Robert Rydell, a professor of history at an unlikely outpost for one of the world’s foremost exposition experts — Montana State University in the northern Rocky Mountains.

I will decorate the story with lots of extra photos to help you visualize the times.

Visitors to Chicago's Century of Progress fair could watch a fully functional General Motors auto assembly line in action.  (National Building Museum; courtesy Albert Kahn Family of Companies)

Visitors to Chicago's Century of Progress fair could watch a fully functional General Motors auto assembly line in action. (National Building Museum; courtesy Albert Kahn Family of Companies)

Great international fairs were already a time-honored venue for technological innovation and artistic showmanship, dating to 1851, when Britain dazzled the world with a glittering “Crystal Palace” and other marvels at London’s “Great Exposition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.” This was followed by jaw-dropping fairs across Europe, and in the next century by extravagant fairs in the United States.

Memorable among them: the nation’s Centennial Exposition in 1876 in Philadelphia, which introduced the world to the telephone, the typewriter, electric light — and ketchup; and the awe-inspiring commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America — the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Americans were almost overwhelmed by Chicago's "Great White City" in 1893.  (Library of Congress)

It turned a chunk of Chicago into a “Great White City” of (mostly temporary) neoclassical buildings so spectacular that the mere sight of them set loose a nationwide “City Beautiful” stampede that invigorated grimy industrial cities.  Come check out the palatial, Beaux-Arts monoliths along Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue if you want to see that neoclassical influence on parade.

By the 1920s, however, the world seemed fatigued with grand expositions.  More accessible entertainment — silent movies, burlesque shows, something called “radio” — were the buzz.  Even the great world’s-fair midways, with their sword swallowers and Ferris wheels and aboriginal peoples paraded like anthropological specimens in front of crowds, no longer fascinated Americans. Great fairs that looked backward at the nation’s achievements were passé indulgences of historians and esthetes and engineers. Read the rest of this entry »

Dealing with the Fat of Our Land

Posted June 13th, 2011 at 6:18 pm (UTC-4)
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Of late I’ve lost 16 kilos (35 pounds).  Friends look at me with startled wonder, as if they’ve bumped into a unicorn.  “You OK?” they say.  Since I’m well known for lacking dietary discipline, they figure I’ve come down with a deadly disease.

To their surprise, and mine, I have shrunk the puffy jowls and midriff blubber while still managing to consume at least SOME of what I like — including a beer or two but excluding sweets.

Off to lunch?  (Ted Landphair)

Off to lunch? (Ted Landphair)

I tell you this because I’m about to write about how very fat we Americans have become.  Mere months ago it would have been the pot (belly) calling the kettle black.  Now I can wag my finger a bit.

According to the government, one-third of Americans of all ages are not just heavier than what’s considered our ideal weight, we’re obese, making us highly susceptible to killer diseases such as heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes.

Obese.  One of those words you don’t want to hear, ranking right up there with “stupid,” “butt ugly,” and “selfish.”  With chilling clarity, I remember the first time my doctor used it to describe me.  Her mouth said “obese,” but her eyes said, “You’re a slob.  Put your clothes on and get out of my sight.”

Americans will own up to being “hefty,” “husky,” “big-boned,” perhaps even “plus-size.”  “Obese” means YOU are one of the Fatty Arbuckles the news magazines are writing about in their “obesity epidemic” cover stories.

Me at my "ideal" weight.

We protest.  We aren’t obese, we say — without much conviction.  “Ideal” weight standards are absurd.  Mine was something like 73 kg (160 pounds).  Ridiculous.  At that weight, I’d look like the person in Edvard Munch’s Scream painting.  I waddled on, comforting myself that I “carried the weight well.”

So do millions of other Americans as we line up at the trough, “supersizing” already-gluttonous offerings such as triple cheeseburgers, heavily salted French fries, and frosty colored chemicals that whip up into non-dairy “milk” shakes.

The cover of a recent Time magazine health issue showed a chubby boy clutching a gigantic, double-scoop ice-cream cone.  The story inside noted that “it’s not just genetics and diet” that are creating a surge in juvenile obesity.

No, wrote Time.  Not just genetics and diet but also poverty.  Poor kids on remote Indian reservations, for instance, have little access to healthy fruits and vegetables.

Race matters, too.  National figures show a 30-percent obesity rate among white kids.  The reading is five points higher for black children and eight points higher for Mexican-American youngsters.  Fattening foods like tamales and refried beans, cooked in lard, are staples of the Mexican-American diet.  And only a relatively small percentage of African Americans live in neighborhoods with well-stocked grocery stores; instead, corner stores peddle sweets and soft drinks and salty snacks.

Click on this to check out the selection of sugary sodas, candy, and baked goods.  (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

Click on this to check out the selection of sugary sodas, candy, and baked goods. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

One such little store that the Washington Post found near a school in a poor neighborhood sold 640 bags of honey cheese curls, 140 bags of salted potato chips, 240 packages of sugary shortcake rolls, and 2,400 bottles of sweet soda — in just five school days.

Many of its customers skipped the free, healthy school breakfasts and ate this fare as their first meal of every day.  Then they crammed in more of this — what’s a polite word? — crud after school, too.

Not just genetics and diet but also environment is fueling Americans’ rotundity.  Caucasian children in fitness-conscious towns such as Boulder, Colorado, which is loaded with bike trails and health-food stores, have low obesity levels.  Those of us in other, less vigorous towns look like water balloons. Read the rest of this entry »

Whole Lotta Shaking, Baking — and Snaking

Posted June 9th, 2011 at 1:30 pm (UTC-4)
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Last posting, I presented a reasonably close inspection of the somewhat aloof, but by no means separatist, Amish people and their culture.  I pointed out that although the sect clings to 19th-century ways, it is growing and thriving.

As I noted, however, the long-term success of other onetime “people apart” in the mainstream American culture could be described as mixed at best.

Three examples are the Shakers, the Amana colonists, and a disjointed collection of religious snake-handlers.  That’s right.  Snake handlers!

Snakes Alive!

Let’s tackle the last first, gingerly, using one of those long crooks from a safe distance.

Snake handling at at Pentacostal service in the Kentucky mining town of Lejunior in 1946.  (National Archives via Wikipedia Commons)

Snake handling at at Pentacostal service in the Kentucky mining town of Lejunior in 1946. (National Archives via Wikipedia Commons)

There is no single snake-handling sect or cult.  Serpent handling is a part of spirited religious ceremonies in a few southern, rural — if not backwoods — Pentecostal churches.  These are fundamentalist congregations that take the Bible literally, including this pronouncement in the New Testament book of Mark:

And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

Thus, “faith healing” and “speaking in tongues” — what to observers sound like incoherent wails and babbling but to believers is the Holy Spirit speaking through the human voice — are also frequent aspects of these services.  This frenzied “holiness” or “charismatic” movement was once prevalent in the hills, hollows, and, especially, coal camps of Appalachia, but it doesn’t appear to have many practitioners any more.  Holding aloft vipers, in particular, is frowned upon, even banned, by most Protestant denominations — and I’ve never seen or heard of a Catholic priest or Jewish rabbi or Muslim imam passing around anything alive with fangs and rattles during services.

Three states have forbidden the handling of venomous snakes in public places, and Georgia passed a law in 1941 that makes snake handling that leads to a fatality a death-penalty offense, after a seven-year-old girl died when a rattlesnake bit her during a service.  In 2008, a preacher at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus [sic] Name was arrested, and not 1, not 2, not 20, but 125 snakes were confiscated in an undercover sting operation.  Snakes alive!

So like a rattler hiding under a rock from the midday sun, the snakes-at-the-altar business has retreated to what is believed to be a handful of country churches and revival tents.

The Amanas — Not Just Refrigerators

In the Midwest state of Iowa not far from the Mississippi River, there’s a cluster of seven villages where buses from several states unload tourists six days a week.

You'd be wise to follow the directions to this Amana establishment, where you'll get a meal ample enough for a king. Maybe two kings.  (GoCal83, Flickr Creative Commons)

You'd be wise to follow the directions to this Amana establishment, where you'll get a meal ample enough for a king. Maybe two kings. (GoCal83, Flickr Creative Commons)

The settlements are what remain of the Amana Colonies, one of America’s most notable communal religious societies.  Visitors come expecting to eat like . . . well, like the hogs for which Iowa is famous, for the Amanas’ reputation for serving plates piled high with food is legendary.  The tourists come to see and purchase quality crafts as well.

And quite a few arrive expecting to catch a glimpse of people in plain black clothes like the Amish, who, as you learned in detail last time, live without electricity and ride in buggies behind slowly trotting horses.

That’s the one area in which they’ll be disappointed, for though pious, somewhat separatist, and self-sufficient, Amana society never rejected modern conveniences.  In fact, their seven little Iowa colonies even turned out Amana-brand electric refrigerators and freezers before the company was purchased by a big corporation in 1965.

A search for a kind of Utopia — a place where people could share their labor and its bounty — led to the founding of the closely-knit villages 156 years ago.  The Amana people were members of a German sect called the “Inspirationalists” who, like the Amish, had fled religious persecution in Europe. Read the rest of this entry »

The Amish: Among Us But Apart — and Thriving

Posted June 6th, 2011 at 6:04 pm (UTC-4)
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Many U.S. separatist religious or cultural sects have seen their numbers diminish or die out.  In fact, in a short follow-up to this posting in a couple of days, I’ll tell you about two of them.

No tractors here.  Literal horsepower provides the muscle.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

No tractors here. Literal horsepower provides the muscle. (Carol M. Highsmith)

But some remarkably plain people who wear what must be uncomfortably hot outfits as the American summer nears, and whose lifestyle moves as fast as, well, a horse and buggy, are flourishing.  The number of Old Order Amish has doubled since 1992 and jumped by 10 percent in the past two years, to an estimated total of 250,000 people, many far from their traditional strongholds in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana.  In fact, you’ll find Amish farmsteads in 28 of the 50 U.S. states, and Amish “scouts” have been spotted in far-off Alaska and Mexico as well.

The Amish boom is happening not just because these people, who seem out of place, even odd, in these days of casual dress, social networking, permissive moral attitudes and an abundance of modern conveniences, have large families. That’s a big part of it, though.  The Amish don’t practice birth control, and most of their families have five or more children, and broods of seven or eight — even 15! —  are not unusual.

Other reasons for the move into new territory: Development, including tract houses and shopping centers, is encroaching on their traditionally isolated rural territory, bringing a measure of chaos, clutter, and sinful temptations for Amish young people, in particular.  Amish men and women grow tired of being tourist attractions, a curiosity to be approached, photographed, even asked by “English” travelers — the Amish call outsiders “English,” or Englischers in German, because of their language — to pose for stupid souvenir photographs, when the Amish eschew photographs as vain.

A horse and buggy approach, as safely off the high-speed portion of the road as possible.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

A horse and buggy approach, as safely off the high-speed portion of the road as possible. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Distant shots don’t seem to disturb them, though, and anyway, the most you’ll get for popping one is a shaken fist, since the Amish don’t believe in lawsuits!  You’ll note an Amish face or two in the photos that accompany this posting, but it’s a historic photo or one of Carol’s shots respectfully taken from a ways away.

The Amish refer to themselves as “Dutch.”  Wherever they live, the Plain People are often called “Pennsylvania Dutch,” corrupted from the word Deutsch — the German language.  Old Order Amish are in fact trilingual:  They speak High German at worship; English at school and in dealing with the Englischers; and, at home, a German dialect peppered with words borrowed from English and softened by French influences from their people’s time in Alsace.

Like it or not, Old Order Amish’s distinctive 19th-century lifestyle must endure alongside, and within, the 21st-century world.  These people cheerfully acknowledge that they are living in a time warp as they drive horse-drawn buggies, open carts, and mule- or horse-pulled farm machinery.  Their farms are often the largest, best-kept, and most prosperous in their counties.

Lush fields, sturdy barns, clothes on the line at this Amish farm, and not an electrical wire to be found.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Lush fields, sturdy barns, clothes on the line at this Amish farm, and not an electrical wire to be found. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Their homesteads are characterized by well-manicured gardens, windmills, and long rows of hanging wash on clotheslines, as well as one, two, or more additions to their farmhouses to accommodate the old folks, who remain in the household until they die.

But what makes these places especially easy to spot are the plain window shades — that “plain” word again — and the absence of electric wires, frilly curtains, or any other kind of adornments.

“Amish Country” is a serene place, full of rolling meadows, vibrant fields of corn and grain, and the Amish people’s tidy farmsteads.   Serene, that is, unless you’re stuck behind lines of tourists’ cars, funneling into quaint villages with even quainter names: Bird-in-Hand, Intercourse, and Blue Ball, for instance, in Pennsylvania; and Charm, Birds Run, Nellie, and Blissfield in Ohio.

Whoopie pies are not pies but soft chocolate, vanilla, or oatmeal cakes overstuffed with creamy pudding.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Whoopie pies are not pies but soft chocolate, vanilla, or oatmeal cakes overstuffed with creamy pudding. (Carol M. Highsmith)

There, you can ride in Amish buggies, gorge yourself at smorgasbord restaurants and Amish bakeries  — just try eating a couple of whoopee pies and then tell me the Amish aren’t sinful! — and watch Amishmen make furniture and cheese.  Their establishments, though, are often staffed out front in public areas, by “English” employees.

Despite the Amish people’s desire for a respect for their privacy, the men with beards and straw hats and women in bonnets, not to mention their ubiquitous horses and buggies (and horsedrawn hearses) can’t help but be a curiosity.

So unlike odd societies that keep their distance, the Amish are not separatists.  They do not live in communes.  Their handsome farms are spread alongside those of their non-Amish neighbors.  The most noticeable difference is that their neighbors will plow their fields with motorized tractors, while the Amishman — or just as often, the Amish boy — will plow his with a team of draft horses or mules.  Tobacco and cattle were once the Amish farmer’s chief commodities.  These days, it’s dairy cattle, corn, and soybeans. Read the rest of this entry »

The Office

Posted June 2nd, 2011 at 2:29 pm (UTC-4)
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I’ve written a lot about work — about office etiquette and stresses and violence; promotions and firings and telecommuting; and about “office politics” and what passes for office humor.  See the comic strip Dilbert and the hit American TV show “The Office” for more about workplace humor, much of it doleful, akin to sarcastic “jailhouse humor” among those trapped in the hoosegow.  And rent the 1956 Gregory Peck movie “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” based on the Sloan Wilson novel, if you’d like a sobering course in corporate conformity that modern office life produced.

Right now I’d like you to consider the office itself.  Not some “virtual” one but the old-standby bricks and mortar and wallboard, the receptionist area and drinking fountains, the coffee pots and corner views and cubicles in which faceless schlubs with dreaded “desk jobs” are said to toil.  Sad to say, a lot of us spend more of our time on earth there than we do anywhere else.

Chicago's Willis Tower, long known as "Sears Tower" for its first owner, has 35,000 square meters of office space.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

What goes on inside office towers such as San Francisco’s Transamerica “Pyramid” and New York’s Empire State Building, lower buildings in smaller towns, and office parks in suburbia drives the nation’s economy and reflects our competitive culture.

How Americans work, what we produce, and even WHY we work have been extensively studied.  Some time ago, for instance, the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., mounted a revealing “On the Job” exhibition and published a catalogue of essays commissioned for it, on WHERE we work and how it has changed since the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s.

That was about a century before the foundation of the American economy had fully morphed from blue-collar factories to enterprises selling ideas, “services,” and technological doodads.

Speaking of Sears, inside its earlier headquarters building in 1913, hundreds of women processed mail orders in a space that looked more like a factory than an office.  (National Building Museum, courtesy Sears Roebuck and National Museum of American History.)

Speaking of Sears, inside its earlier headquarters building in 1913, hundreds of women processed mail orders in a space that looked more like a factory than an office. (National Building Museum, courtesy Sears Roebuck and National Museum of American History.)

The seed was planted as former officers from the Civil War took charge of emerging white-collar businesses, where they instituted military-style hierarchies — down to pools of lowly, closely supervised clerks and secretaries.  Even 75 years later, in what is now the VOA headquarters building — constructed like a fortress with thick walls and floors designed to support hundreds of Social Security minions, thousands of cabinets, and millions of paper files but instead initially occupied by the U.S. military — file clerks and typists worked in open rooms nearly a city block long.

One of the essayists contributing to the National Building Museum exhibit, San Francisco architect and writer Stanley Abercrombie, told me that for a good century “no one thought it possible that the office could be a place of beauty.  It was considered a place of necessary drudgery.”

Despite the potted plants and recessed lighting and spine-friendly furniture that came along, there are those who think that things haven’t changed much.  Abercrombie continued:

The idea behind this 1997 workstation prototype was to "facilitate visual connections between work in progress."  (National Building Museum, courtesy Haworth, Inc.)

It was quite a step forward when someone thought that even though drudgery went on there, it could be something esthetically pleasing.   The office of today is the object of a great deal of esthetic consideration. Those cubicles are formed by panels, and a great many people have spent a long time proportioning the panels and deciding what kind of fabric should go on it and what color the fabric should be.

In other words, architects and interior designers and psychologists tried to make the best of a bad situation.  Cue Elvis Costello, singing: “Welcome to the working week./ “Oh, I know it don’t thrill you.  I hope it don’t kill you.”

Crysanthe Broikos curated the “On the Job” exhibition.  She says that by 1920 most offices were rigidly organized around row after row of what were called “Modern Efficiency Desks,” with metal tops and almost no storage space. Read the rest of this entry »

Doomsday, Take Two

Posted May 31st, 2011 at 12:18 pm (UTC-4)
2 comments

You know how it is when you tell people a riveting story about a good movie or book or sporting event? They want to know how it turned out.  So I waited to be sure it hadn’t really happened before I wrote about the most recent End of the World.

Harold Camping admits his doomsday prediction was off, but only by six months.  So he’ll be back in the news in late September.  (CrazyInSane, Wikipedia Commons)

Harold Camping admits his doomsday prediction was off, but only by six months. So he’ll be back in the news in late September. (CrazyInSane, Wikipedia Commons)

By now you have probably heard that Christian preacher Harold Camping, an 89-year-old retired civil engineer and self-taught biblical scholar whose broadcasts on more than 200 U.S. radio stations and two TV stations have brought him a devoted following and lots of money, prophesied God’s judgment day for Saturday, May 21st.  It was to start in New Zealand and, by 6 p.m. EDT, reach us here in Washington.

Details were a bit fuzzy.  Sometimes Camping spoke of a more gradual destruction of the Earth that would just start on the 21st.   But some catastrophe was sure to get the (fire)ball rolling toward the world’s demise on that date.

Camping’s Family Radio Network bought space on billboards from coast to coast and printed millions of pamphlets about his doomsday prediction.

This message, similar to ones that the Family Radio Network posted on billboards across the nation, appeared on the side of a semi-truck outside Camping's Oakland headquarters.  (AP Photo/Jose Sanchez)

This message, similar to ones that the Family Radio Network posted on billboards across the nation, appeared on the side of a semi-truck outside Camping's Oakland headquarters. (AP Photo/Jose Sanchez)

Camping told his flock, and anyone else who would listen, that he picked the date after somehow calculating that it fell exactly 7,000 years to the day after the first of 40 days and 40 nights of rain that, the Bible says, created a great flood that killed all of naughty mankind.  The virtuous prophet Noah and his family, however, were spared.  As told in Genesis, the Bible’s very first book, Noah, expecting the worst when the skies grew threatening, built a huge boat called an “ark,” on which he, his wife, his sons, and their wives — along with two of every other kind of animal that Noah herded aboard — rode out the terrible storm. Read the rest of this entry »

Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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