Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The U.S. and Us: The Mythology of the Self-Made Man

Just before break we discussed the idea of the U.S. as being a place where any citizen over 35 can really become president. Influence and money seem to be important ingredients in political success -- but not everyone has equal access to these commodities. Here are a few examples:

* Caroline Kennedy appears poised to assume the Senate seat left vacant by Hilary Rodham Clinton. Jeb Bush has expressed interest in running for the Senate seat in Florida, the state he ran as governor.

* When Alaska's two senators take their seats in the new Congress next month, their names will be familiar to most voters in that state.Senator Lisa Murkowski and her soon-to-be colleague, Mayor Mark Begich of Anchorage, are the daughter and son of two Alaskans who squared off in the 1970 race for the state's sole House seat. And just think of the Clintons, the Cuomos -- the Daleys in our fair city!

Adam Bellow (son of the late Noble Prize-winning Saul Bellow!) sees nothing wrong with nepotism. In his recent book In Praise of Nepotism: A History of Family Enterprise from King David to George W. Bush argues that "[Capitalism] in essence is a family enterprise. Most businesses were and still are started by family members."

Others, including Brown University economists Pedro and Ernesto Dal Bo, are a little more concerned. They argue that in the U.S. -- as in every other country -- "power begets power." And it's been this way since our country was founded. According to the Dal Bo brothers, "Forty-five percent of the members of the first U.S. Congress had relatives enter Congress after them, compared with a still-high follow rate of about 10 percent now. They say that the rate of children following their forebears into Congress outstrips the rate of those who follow their parents into any other career, from medicine and law to plumbing."

That first Congress (1789-1791) launched the record service of two notable families. The Breckinridge family of Kentucky, whose most notable member was Henry Clay, "The Great Compromiser" had 17 family members serve; the most recent, John Breckinridge, left Congress in 1978. And the Muhlenberg family of Pennsylvania had 13 members of Congress between 1789 and 1880, including Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg, the first speaker of the House. (New York Times)

Regarding money, I was struck by a recent article in Forbes magazine. The article quotes Edward Pessen, author of the book The Log Cabin Myth who writes, "One thing is clear, the popular assumption that most of the presidents were of humble birth is wrong." In fact, at least a third of the presidents he examined were in the top 1% of the wealth and class indexes. Who was the richest president (adjusted for inflation, of course)? George Washington. Here's his top ten:

George Washington 1789 to 1797
Thomas Jefferson 1801 to 1809
Andrew Jackson 1829 to 1837
Zachary Taylor 1849 to 1850
Theodore Roosevelt 1901 to 1909
Herbert Hoover 1929 to 1933
Franklin D. Roosevelt 1933 to 1945
John F. Kennedy 1961 to 1963
Lyndon B. Johnson 1963 to 1969
George W. Bush 2001 to present

The article singles out Abraham Lincoln as being the biggest beneficiary of the self-made man myth. Mary Todd, his wife, was extremely wealthy, and Lincoln represented railroads and major corporations among his clients.

Last point here: Over this break I also read a book called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. In this book Gladwell argues that successful people work hard and make the most of their opportunities, but that not everyone gets an equal opportunity to succeed. Notable celebrities such as Bill Gates and the Beatles seem to grant this point immediately. Jeb Bush, brother of the current president, is one celebrity who refuses to believe this idea, indulging instead in what Gladwell terms "fantasies about being a self-made man." Bush claims that his success is only the result of "his own pluck and work ethic" and that he was actually at a "disadvantage" having a grandfather who was a senator and a father who was president!

Is the self-made man idea uniquely American? Why do we hold on to it so dearly even in the face of a mountain of contradictory evidence?

Friday, December 19, 2008

American Heroes/American Values

Seeger at 86 on the cover of Sing Out! (Summer...Image via WikipediaLooking over the list of this year's Grammy nominees, I was thrilled to see one of my great heroes: Pete Seeger. One reason why this comes as a surprise is that Seeger will turn 90 next spring! On the other hand, Pete has spent his long, rich life pursuing the values that he most cares about -- social justice, racial equality, environmental protection, and world music. Seeger's not just a folk music hero to me; he's worshiped by many important singers who've followed him -- Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Steve Earle just to name a few. (See the "iPod" on the side of this blog to hear Earle's recent song called "Steve's Hammer for Pete").

Seeger is a man of tremendous principle. He married a Japanese woman in the 1940's when our country was throwing many Japanese-Americans in prison camps. He fought for civil rights, singing with Mahalia Jackson and Paul Robeson when it nearly cost him his life. He inspired many famous civil rights leaders, including Julian Bond, who credits Seeger for opposing Jim Crow laws before the Civil Rights Movement really got underway. Pete even wrote some of the lyrics to "We Shall Overcome". He fought for unions and common working men (and women since he also advocated equality among the sexes). He traveled the world and recorded world music like no one had ever done before.

For all this he was branded a Communist and blacklisted from appearing on TV for 17 years at the height of his popularity. When the ban was finally lifted he shocked everyone by defiantly singing an anti-Vietnam War song called "The Big Muddy." Since then he sang to end apartheid in South Africa and almost single handedly cleaned up the Hudson River. He's 89 now and he gets my vote for "the American who best exemplifies the values I hold most dear." Who are your heroes?
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Thursday, December 18, 2008

An American Values...?

Today our class revisited the "Wisdom of Crowds" by generating another "word cloud", using the Wordle.net website. Based on what we collectively believe to be the top ten values held by most Americans, see the image below. Just an FYI: I've included the raw text in an effort to be transparent: some of the "values" had to be modified either to create more commonalities, to correct the spelling, or in order to parallel the part of speech. For example, I changed "strong" (adj) to "strength" (n). I also changed "Wal-Mart/Big=better" to "Bigness".

Here is the original (unedited) text:
Materialism reduntantism democracy wealth beauty benevolent freedom diversity family education elitist materialism capitalism reduntantism patriotism family Darwinism reduntantism loyalty equality independence freedom justice reduntantism materialism wal-mart/Big=better progression family success/hardworking elitist strong morality patriotism tradition materialism family simplicity freedom safety military individuality progression opportunity tradition materialism diversity optimism competition open-mindedness tradition advancement wealth education family strong-defense materialism safety family economic-surplus entertainment simplicity freedom power food shelter materialism patriotism competitiveness hardwork wholesomeness music promise acceptance courage freedom materialism family hardworking religion tradition democracy freedom healthiness knowledge success unity ethics freedom materialism family religion patriotism upward mobility tradition relationship safety success education materialism family religion freedom tradtion ethics opportunity saftey success happiness

Think now of Robin William's and James Henslin's lists. Now that you have thought critically about what Americans truly value, where do you stand?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

U.S. Constitution Assessment

With Governor Blagojevich's recent arrest, I can't think of a better time for us to watch this video, entitled "Corruption", used with kind permission from Stanford Law Professor, Lawrence Lessig. A link to a transcript of this portion of his talk will allow you to utilize the actual text. Note any vocabulary words you struggled to understand and please bring them to class.

We will be discussing and critiquing this provocative argument, along with an excerpt from Gore's book, The Assault on Reason as one way to better understand the US Constitution.

Do you agree with his thesis? In order to answer that question, you will need to bring your textbook to class, or at least bring an unabridged copy of the US Constitution with you every day this week. What parts of the Constitution seem most relevant to this inquiry?

Friday, December 05, 2008


In New York City a billboard emits highly focused sound that resonates within the skulls of passersby. It’s a novel way of advertising, a potentially terrifying intrusion and, according to technology writer Clive Thompson, the leading edge of a new civil rights battleground – the right to privacy in your own mind.

Have you seen Minority Report? Do you remember the scene in the mall when Tom Cruise's character is bombarded with advertising messages inside his own head?

If intrusive ads don't seem that worrisome to you, consider this: there are scientists currently working on a device that shines an infrared beam on your forehead, a sort of remote MRI, that can "read" your mind to determine if you are in "mental anguish". What this means, for example, is that before we tell a lie, a simple brain scan can reveal it. Imagine the antiterrorist uses for this at airports.

What do you think about any/all of these issues? For more information, listen to this excerpt from NPR's On the Media, which is the source of today's post: