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The not so United States
Posted at: Jun/07/2017 : Posted by: melmann
Related Category: Perspectives, Society, Watching America,
Sometimes the best understanding of something is from the outside looking in. While recently in London I had a number of conversations with the hotel concierge. As is expected with his title, he helped find the right restaurants to dine at, arranged some special tickets and helped in locating key sites and attractions. We also had a couple of insightful conversations. In his role as a concierge he had met quite a few Americans. He was amazed by our diversity in what we wanted to do, our politics and our accents. For him, it was quite a challenge to believe that we were actually from a single country. His insights and ultimate question were remarkable asking; “how can a people who are so different manage to function as one, and how can a government possibly serve them effectively?”
To understand America, one must first recognize the foundations of its early history. Each of the original colonies was founded by a distinct population with their own religious, social and economic values. As is typical in human behavior, they only really came together when they had a common enemy, the taxation and repression of the English crown. When the revolutionary war ended these colonies came together to negotiate the terms of a common governing document. That document, the United States Constitution begins “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union.” Adopted in 1789, these words are very ominous, they tell of a collection of “States” who are different, but through their collective unification can provide mutual security and a system of governance that respects the unique identify of each individual state. It is for this reason that the Constitution is written with the majority of power held by the Legislative bodies where the states are represented. In contrast, the executive branch has only as much power as the Senate and the House of Representative cedes to it. While by no means dysfunctional, our framers clearly saw that different regions of the United States had different type of populations, religions, economies and aspirations.
For anyone who has traveled the U.S. it can sometimes seem remarkable to believe that we are actually one country. Whether in the small towns of the New England states, the Pacific Northwest, the deep south, middle America or major cities like New York and San Francisco; it is not unusual to be greeted by “you’re not from around here, are you?” This is often referred to as the diversity of America. This diversity is both a strength and a curse. As a curse, it is often difficult for people with different points of views to respect each other enough to work together on a common task. As a strength, when faced with major national challenges Americans meet to share a broad range of potential solutions. Despite the strength in this diversity, it comes with conflict. It is because of these regional conflicts that many people have sought ways of unifying the people of the United States.
George Washington saw that there was a great deal of farmable land in the Ohio River Valley across the Allegheny Mountains. It was his aspiration to create a canal system between the navigable headwaters of the Ohio River and the tidewaters of the Potomac River. Such a system could create a “door” to the new western frontier providing a market for goods and “…bind those people to us by a chain which never can be broken.” Washington was referring to the existing settlers of the Ohio valley who did not at that time feel any great allegiance to one country over another. At that time the peoples west of the Allegheny Mountains did not automatically identify as “Americans.” The Patowmack Company was organized in 1785 to build the canal and lock system. Approximately half of the project was complete before the Patowmack Company was folded in 1827 with Washington’s dream fading to history. It would be difficult to say that the Erie Canal helped to unite America, but its opening in 1825 provided a path around Niagara Falls and the Niagara Escarpment opened up markets for the trade goods from Lake Erie to the Hudson River, the port of New York and European markets.
There are those who will argue that roads and the early rail system helped to unite America. While these means of transportation did help grow economic markets, as the Civil War showed, distinct differences still persisted between regions of the country. Even with the conclusion of the Civil War, regional differences and values persisted. West of the Mississippi River, roads proved valuable as a conduit for migration and expansion as the country truly grew from ocean to ocean. Nevertheless, these roads had little if any impact on unifying the American people.
In 1862, with the first battles of the civil war already recorded, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act. California and the Oregon territories had already created a culture all their own. The supporters of the Transcontinental railroad had argued to members of Congress that this would “Unite the Country” by reducing coast-to-coast travel time from many weeks to only a few days. When completed in May of 1869 the new railway created the economic means for tremendous growth in the middle of the country and trade from California to everywhere, but the goal of a unified country was still eluding national leadership despite everything that the railroad was supposed to accomplish.
For the next 40 years many new technologies rapidly spread across America, each claiming they would unite the diverse peoples of various states and geographic regions. The telegraph and telephone where initially thought to be tools that would unite the country. While news and information could now move from coast to coast in minutes and seconds, regions of the country persisted with their unique identities. When the MacAdam road surface of crushed and compacted gravel became a standard, roads across the country improved and seasonal mud was no longer an issue, but this had little effect on reducing the uniqueness of each community and region of the country. Of interesting note, when MacAdam roads started to be covered with a layer of tar, the road surface was called “tarmac.”
The radio has had an interesting influence on America and it attitudes. The first successful experiments with transmitted radio voice was in the late 1890’s. The first radio news program was broadcast in late 1920 in Detroit Michigan; there were less than 20 receivers in range at the time. By 1928 a console radio was one of the most common household appliances anywhere in America. At the same time, broadcasters such as NBC, RCA and CBS had by this time created “radio networks.” These networks were a collection of hundreds of local affiliate stations who would receive and relay/broadcast programs and news coming from the home stations in New York. These radio networks did more to unify the country than any previous technology funded by government despite their intended goal only being the profit from advertising. At the end of a long day, families gathered around their console radios and listened to the same programming, both informational and entertaining at the same time. When people got together the next day to talk, it was most often about what they had heard the previous night on the radio, whether a “fireside chat” from the President, a boxing match, or entertainment such as Amos ‘n’ Andy. With only a couple of radio networks, everyone was hearing the same things and therefore talking about the same things. Combined with the universal burdens of the Great Depression, America was more unified in the 1930’s than any previous time in its history.
The historical impact of electronic television is very similar to radio. It is blurry to decide who to give the invention credit to, but most will argue it belongs to Philo Farnsworth who in 1927 created an “image dissector camera tube to send images that could be presented remotely in a ‘Cathode Ray Tube’ (CRT). The first public demonstration of this technology took place on April 7th, 1927 at the Bell Telephone laboratories in Manhattan. With reports watching a 3 inch by 2 inch screen, Herbert Hoover, the Secretary of Commerce read a statement from his office in Washington DC. “Today we have, in a sense, the transmission of sight for the first time in the world’s history. Human genius has now destroyed the impediment of distance in a new respect, and in a manner hitherto unknown.” The New York Times reporter was not impressed and wrote of television’s potential value, “if it has one…it is largely in public entertainment.”
In 1948 there were only 172,000 TV receivers in the entire country being served by 28 broadcasting stations; at the same time there were 1,600 broadcasters transmitting radio programming. Consumer pricing has often driven markets and televisions and the television industry are no exception. In 1950 a Philco 12-inch TV cost $499, by 1955 the new Admiral 21-inch only cost $149. In 1952 there were 15 million televisions in America, but by 1955 that number had soared to 72-million. It was estimated that by 1962, 90% of American households owned a television. While radio programs by this time were very inexpensive to produce, a television program required very special equipment and a studio, this meant that only a few deep pockets could produce programs and thereby control the market. It became a family ritual to gather around the television after dinner and watch ‘I Love Lucy’, ‘Burns and Allen’, ‘Gunsmoke’, and a host of other programs.
These programs were distributed across television networks similar to the radio networks of the 1930’s and they had a similar unifying effect. When Walter Cronkite, one of the most trusted journalistic voices in America on February 27th, 1968 announced to his evening new audience that we could not win the Vietnam War, the impact was felt across the country. Cronkite’s influence was considered so great that on watching the broadcast President Lyndon Johnson turned to an aide and said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Johnson would explain the realities of the Tet Offensive to the American people and how the North Vietnamese had been repelled, but the damage was done. Cronkite had said that the public had lost optimism in the U. S. government and military officials about the progress of the Vietnam War. This single broadcast is credited with ending Johnson’s credibility and trust with the American people despite all his other accomplishments. Whether watching Ed Sullivan or listening to Walter Cronkite, network television had an extremely strong and binding influence on America and its values.
In the early 1980’s and on into the next decade the cost for the equipment to produce television programming dropped and many more broadcast networks were formed. Cable and satellite television quickly followed offering the viewing audience first dozens, and then potentially over one hundred channels of viewing content to browse. With so much diverse content to select from, the unifying nature of television was lost in favor of broad personal choices.
There have been events in American history that have created a national unity, the sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898, the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the shooting of President Kennedy in 1963 and the destruction of the World Trade Center Towers in 2001 are a few of the most significant. In response to each of these major events the country came together almost unanimously to grieve together and focus on a single goal. As these tragedies faded, so did the desire to come together focused on a single objective.
Clearly, the United States is really a collection of states with unique identities, each have an economy and culture that is similar, but still different from that of its neighboring states. For most of our country’s history the Senate and House of Representatives have recognized this and therefore approached each legislative agenda as a negotiation. With this understanding it is clear that no single mindset or agenda will serve all of the country well. It is also clear that recognizing the value of unique state identities, many legislative issues are better handled at the state, rather than the national level. Understanding the diversity across the American states, it becomes obvious that any nationally drawn education, health or other policy is likely to pass by a narrow margin and continue to be rewritten with each new administration. Clearly, the needs of the southern states are different in many respects to those of the west coast reflecting their distinct peoples and economies.
In 1782 Congress adopted an Act codifying “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many, one) as the de facto motto of the United States. Those founding fathers in 1782 understood the variety that collectively is America. Many of these same men, or their parents immigrated to the America’s, not to be assimilated into one society…rather to be who they wanted to be without persecution. They recognized the need to respect the regional differences that make up this collection of states attempting to be one country.
Uniquely, the 13 letters of “E Pluribus Unum” became a critical foundation to 13 colonies coming together to fight for a single cause. Yet, when the war was over each soldier went home to their state where they felt there was a special community and distinctiveness that they identified with. Being an American is as much about fighting for and believing in common goals as it is recognizing the variety of peoples and states that make up this country and respecting those differences. Despite the efforts by many in our history to “unify American”, we have since our first colonies been a collection of different peoples divided by values, geography, religion and economics.
As my London concierge noted, it can sometimes be difficult to believe that we are all from one country. But as Americans, it is important to know that believing that only you are doing it right, and everyone else needs to change to be like you is un-American.