Monthly Archives: February 2014

Will Our Gilded Age Lead to Another Progressive Era?

Humorist Mark Twain was among the first to call the years bookmarking the turn of the 19th century the “Gilded Age.” Struck by the results of rapid industrialization, rampant greed, political corruption and the growing divide between the Haves and Have-Nots, Twain drew attention to America’s growing social issues by writing revealing satires about a society whose problems spelled trouble for most people.  Novelists Henry James and Edith Wharton painted literary pictures of what it was like to be of, or outside, the wealthy class, much as Dickens had, or Downton Abbey does visually today.

 During that Gilded Age, “robber barons” with deep pockets dined on delectables, accompanied by women with feathers and fans complimenting their fabulous gowns.  They wintered in Manhattan mansions and fled to Newport “cottages” during the hot summer months while the one percent of their day subsisted in shared flats, scraping by, often on leftovers and hand-me-downs from those they served.

 In today’s Gilded Age, Wall Street bankers dress down for dinner, their women in Gucci, Pucci and Louis Vuitton casual-wear. They live on Fifth Avenue as the barons did, or in rehabbed Brooklyn brownstones perhaps, and keep beachside condos in Boca Raton and Belize.

 To paraphrase a popular Thai expression, “Same same but [not all that] different.”

 Harvard professor Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone, draws important comparisons between the first Gilded Age and ours. “Americans at the end of the nineteenth century were divided by class, ethnicity, and race, much as we are today,” he writes, and “social observers … were concerned with how to intertwine new technology with face-to-face ties.”  Morality was eroding, communities were fracturing, and social Darwinism – economic survival of the fittest – was part of the dominant ideology, he explains. 

 Enter the Progressive Era launched by left-leaning journalists like Jacob Riis, social activists like Ida Tarbell and Jane Addams, and authors like Upton Sinclair, who exposed urban squalor, government corruption, exploitation of immigrants, and the evils of big business and “banks too big to fail.” Ida Tarbell

 As the 20th century moved into its second decade, progressives increasingly yearned for a return to small town values, Putnam suggests, including connection and caring for neighbors in need.  They remembered the Mom and Pop shops that had been displaced by Sears Roebuck and the A&P. They also decried “cheap entertainment” because it added to the decline of civic engagement.

 Other great progressive thinkers had weighed in on the problems of a Gilded Age long before Putnam drew parallels to our own time.  Victorian reformer Benjamin Disraeli, for example, wrote this in 1845:  “In great cities men are brought together by the desire of gain. They are not in a state of co-operation, but of isolation, as to the making of fortunes and for all the rest they are careless neighbors.”

 The point is that the first Gilded Age seems to have foreshadowed our own time, in which wealth shrugs off poverty, one percent pleads while 99 percent play, and the promises of technology and innovation are overshadowed by what increasingly appears to be “fool’s gold.” 

 Then as now, as Putnam put it, “optimism…battled pessimism grounded in the hard realities of seemingly intractable social ills,” and “new concentrations of wealth and corporate power raised questions about the real meaning of democracy.”  Product Details

 As we have entered a new century, we too have witnessed “impoverished ethnic minorities struggle with social injustice.” We have seen changes in workplace practices, priorities and ethics that create new challenges for economists and employees alike.   Immigration is altering the face of America as it did the last time a new century was born. And once again, “older strands of social connection are being…destroyed by technological, economic and social change.”

 The lessons of the Progressive movement that followed the 20th century’s Gilded Age are mixed.  Much of what we know from that period is enlightening and informs how we should go forward in compelling ways. At the same time, we know from that experience that racism, classism, and an overwrought labor movement, as well as other inhibitors proved to be major roadblocks in the struggle for beneficial, sustainable social change.

 So the truth is that while we cannot go backwards, what the future might hold continues to be unclear, and often frightening.  We can only hope that if a new progressive era takes hold – and there is every indication that it might – we need to be mindful of past lessons learned and realistic and inclusive in developing a roadmap to a new and better place.

 Perhaps we would do well to start by reading the works of Mark Twain, Ida Tarbell, Edith Wharton, Jacob Riis and other social critics of that period.  Having “been there [and] done that,” they clearly have a thing or two to teach us, if only we can remain open to the lessons of another dubious golden age.

                                               

Why the Millennial Generation Gives Me Hope

Not long ago I participated in an event that attracted a good number of young women who are of the generation known as the Millennials.  Demographers use this term (or Gen-Y) when referring to the children of baby boomers, adults in their late thirties and early forties.  There are about 80 million of them in the U.S. and they represent the last generation born in the 20th century.  Life for them has never existed without the Internet; they are totally tech-savvy.

 http://canadianmillennials.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Millennials1.png

They’re also, it can be argued, socially conscious. They care about equity, social justice, poverty, peace, the environment and other issues of our time.  They seem more likely than the generation that precedes them to invest in social capital – a term Robert Putnam wrote about in his bestseller Bowling Alone, which analyzes the importance of – and decline in – valuable networks that help create beneficial changes in society. Whether its job networking, neighborhood watches or programs to feed the hungry, social capital and collective action matters, and increasingly, it matters to Millennials.  So does having meaningful work, a sense of community, and an openness to new ideas and experiences.

 The women I met at the event I attended were beginning their fourth decade. Each of them had a senior, lucrative position within their organizations and in their chosen fields, from medicine to marketing. Yet each of them was poised to forfeit the financial security and comfort zone of their respective workplaces in order to do something more meaningful professionally.

 Shortly after meeting those wonderful, risk-taking young women I read a piece in The New York Times that also gave me hope for the future because of our collective progeny.  It was about Jewish students at Swarthmore College who decided that their Hillel – the Jewish student group on many college campuses – would be the first “Open Hillel” in the country.  This decision meant that they would no longer abide by national Hillel guidelines that prohibit chapters from certain actions they deem to be not fully supportive of Israel.  Such actions might include inviting certain speakers, showing a film about Palestinians, or having a discussion with a Palestinian student group, or a left-leaning Jewish group for that matter. “All are welcome to walk through our doors,” Swarthmore students proclaimed. If I were a parent of one of those kids I’d be mighty proud.

 Millennials are social activists and social entrepreneurs.  Take the work of actress and filmmaker Kamala Lopez and her colleague Gini Sikes.  They are producing a film called “Equal Means Equal,” a documentary about women’s equality, as part of the ERA Education Project Lopez founded.  “Equal Means Equal provides a forum for the voices of American women to be heard on a national stage,” Lopez says.  The film, using archival footage and visual arts, highlights women from across the country as they talk about their lives and how they want them to change, with topics such as the gender pay gap, pregnancy discrimination, immigration, religion and violence among the subjects discussed.

  Kamala Lopez

Kiva co-founders Matt Flannery and Jessica Jackley exemplify Millennial social entrepreneurs. A non-profit organization with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty, Kiva leverages the internet and a worldwide network of microfinance institutions so that individuals can lend as little as $25 to help create opportunity around the world.   Since it was founded in 2005, over a million people have become Kiva lenders and over $500 million in loans to small-scale businesses in the world’s poorest countries have been made. More than 99 percent of those loans are paid back, encouraging donors to reinvest. “We envision a world where all people – even in the most remote areas of the globe – hold the power to create opportunity for themselves and others,” Kiva leaders say. 

 

Millennials were among the leaders of the Occupy Movement, which regardless of its flaws, is aimed at social and economic equality.  And unlike their Boomer parents Millennials want a healthy balance between work and family life.  They are more likely to achieve gender equality on the home front and to comfortably reach across the divides of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

 Don’t get me wrong:  Millennials are viewed in some quarters as self-centered, lazy, job-hopping, neurotic narcissists with a huge sense of entitlement and a diminished ability to make commitments.  I’ve actually met a few who might qualify for some of those descriptors. But I know of or have engaged with enough people in this age group to believe that they offer a good deal of hope for the future of the planet, and that gives my slightly pre-Boomer heart a great deal of comfort.

           

What Does the Future Hold for Afghan Women?

Back in the 1920s things looked hopeful for women in Afghanistan.  King Amanullah Khan and his wife Queen Soraya worked diligently to improve women’s lives. The king discouraged polygamy, advocated against the veil, and pushed for greater personal freedom for females.  “Tribal custom must not impose itself on the free will of the individual,” he said.  His sister, Kobra, created the Organization for Women’s Protection while another sister established a women’s hospital.  Queen Soroya even founded the first magazine for women.

By the end of this progressive decade conservative tribal leaders pushed back against the growing freedoms for women and the King’s successor acquiesced.  Still, urban women entered the work force in the 1930s, mainly as teachers and nurses, and by 1959 many had unveiled.  A1964 constitution gave women the right to vote and to enter politics.

 All of these advances, and those that followed in the 1970s and 80s came to a crashing halt when the Taliban came to power in 1996 following Soviet rule. We’re familiar with their brutal oppression of women symbolized by blue burkhas and stoning deaths. 

 Post Taliban, things seemed to improve.  A woman was elected to the Loya Jirga in 2003 and the following year a new constitution codified that “the citizens of Afghanistan – whether man or woman – have equal rights and duties before the law.” In 2008 the first political party dedicated to women’s rights was launched and 35 percent of the more than five million children enrolled in schools were girls. 

 That was also the year that acid attacks on female students began.

The facts about Afghan women are chilling.  Only 14 percent of them are literate.  Their maternal mortality rate is the second highest in the world. Almost 80 percent of rural women have no access to health care. Nearly 60 percent of marriages involve girls younger than 16 and more than 87 percent of Afghan women are in forced marriage or suffer physical or sexual abuse by their husbands. Average life expectancy for women is 44 years.

 “The fall of the Taliban brought global attention to the plight of Afghan women,” a 2010 Afghan-web.com piece notes.  “But even with a sizeable amount of aid and scores of consultants and projects, palpable changes remain elusive.”

 That year, prominent Afghan women gathered in Kabul to spearhead a campaign to improve the lives of Afghan women through legislation while changing the prevailing male mindset.   For despite the 2004 Constitution old laws and tribal customs continued in the face of a government unwilling to enforce the law. Today, in spite of the efforts of many Afghan women who repatriated to help the women of their country, the situation remains bleak. 

 Last spring a member of the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) told an interviewer that the country remains extremely dangerous for women. Ninety percent of Afghan females, she said, have experienced some form of violence and the suicide rate among women is climbing because women feel hopeless. 

In June, when security was handed over from NATO to Afghan forces and US troops began preparing for withdrawal, women’s concerns loomed large in the face of escalating attacks on high profile women.   Legislative and policy changes aimed at improving women’s lives are also being targeted.  The 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women law may be amended to prohibit relatives of the accused from being questioned about abuses they’ve witnessed.  Some politicians have called for eliminating the minimum marriage age while others want to abolish women’s shelters and remove criminal penalties for rape.  The quota for women in government has been lowered; some want it ended altogether.

 Meanwhile, the Taliban are regaining legitimacy as an acceptable partner in peace-building.

 Malalai Joya,

a young activist elected to the Afghan parliament in 2005 (later removed from her post) told The Nation last November, “In rural areas, the situation for women is like hell. We have a mafia parliament. The majority of seats belong to warlords, drug lords, even Taliban. Most of the women in parliament are pro-warlord. Their role is symbolic. We’ve seen acid attacks, burning girls’ schools, cutting the nose and ears off women, public beatings and executions. In Taliban time we had one enemy; now we have three: the Taliban, warlords and occupation forces. When they leave the situation will be even bloodier…because more terrorists will come into power.”

 Such testimony calls into question a multi-million dollar program announced in September to support Afghan women’s political participation, a collaboration between the Afghan Independent Election Commission and the Asia Foundation aimed at voter turnout among women during the next elections.

 As one RAWA spokeswoman put it when asked if an Afghan Spring was imminent, “Change takes time. Things are not moving in the right direction. There won’t be a quick solution.” Then she added, “As a mother, I dream a safe, secure life for my children. Every mother has this dream: a safe life, even before education and good health.”

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 (A fuller version of this commentary can be found at www.towardfreedom.com)