Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Service of Retrospect: Cleaning Up the Past with Rose Colored Glasses

Thursday, July 26th, 2018

Photo: icreatedaily.com

There a many powerful pro and con arguments about the confiscation of historic statues—of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans, Confederate Soldiers and Sailors in Baltimore or Jefferson Davis in Memphis to name a few—or the removal of names on prizes and honors of people once admired. In most cases their political positions, remarks or writings represented or reflected racist sentiments, often typical in the day, that are unacceptable now. Yet not all have been equally demoted.

Robert E. Lee statue formerly in New Orleans

Take Albert Einstein. In recently released travel diaries he wrote “some racist things about the Chinese back in the early 1920s,” Peter Dreier reported on prospect.org. “As I point out in my book,” wrote Dreier of  The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, “none of the 100 people in my Social Justice Hall of Fame was

Albert Einstein Photo: biography.com

(or is) a saint. They all had vision, courage, persistence, and talent, but they also made mistakes.” He also wrote “I would certainly incorporate Einstein racist comments in my profile of him, but that wouldn’t exclude him from being in the pantheon of great American radicals and progressives.”

Drier continued: “Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood and a crusader for women’s health and birth control, briefly endorsed eugenics.

Margaret Sanger Photo: pbs.org

Theodore Roosevelt’s was a foe of big business, but his ‘big stick’ imperialism outraged many progressives. Alice Paul, the great women’s suffrage leader, was an anti-Semite. Eleanor Roosevelt also absorbed the casual anti-Semitism of her upper-class WASP upbringing.”

Then there’s the former Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. A division of the American Library Association [ALA]– the Association for Library Service to Children {ALSC]–renamed the award the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. According to Michael Taube in The Wall Street Journal, “‘Wilder’s legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness,’ the association announced in a press release.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Photo: en.wikipedia.org

“Characters in ‘Little House on the Prairie’ say ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’ three times,” Taube reported. “Wilder’s references to her white settler family’s manifest destiny has also troubled the black community,” he wrote.

Taub continued: “Hardly anyone would defend these sentiments today, but people are products of their times. The Wilder Award was established in 1954, and its first recipient was Laura Ingalls Wilder herself. If we judge past luminaries by today’s standards, who’s next to go?”

For 36 years the ALA collaborated on Banned Books Week with Amnesty International. Taub quoted “An ALSC blog post about it last September called the week a time to ‘celebrate intellectual freedom.’” He asked: “How does the ALSC square the spirit of Banned Books Week with its scrubbing of Wilder’s name?” and concluded “I tried to reach them, but didn’t receive a response.”

How best deal with the past when looking at it through today’s rose colored glasses?

  • Why are we inconsistent in our castigation of prominent historic figures, punishing some and not others? For example, should the World Cultural Council rename its Albert Einstein World Award of Science?
  • What does it take for some, and not others to lose their exalted place in the firmament of the admired?
  • Do you agree with the name change made by the Association for Library Service to Children from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award?
  • Should we leave well enough alone or in the forewords of book reprints, such as Ingalls Wilder’s, put in historic context her remarks and attitudes that are now considered hurtful and demeaning?

 

Eleanor Roosevelt Photo: tes.com

Service of Leave it Alone, Already

Monday, July 11th, 2016

Waldorf Astoria

Waldorf Astoria

I thought, “Why did they have to pick on this house to ruin?” I’ve written before about the Brooklyn Heights house that had one thing going for it: All of the original plaster and woodwork were intact, which was unusual. We didn’t get the house but revisited it during a house tour. The new owners had stripped away every trace of original architectural element and transformed the 19th century brownstone into a 20th century monument to the innocuous and bland.

Wall Street Journal Urban Gardner columnist Ralph Gardner Jr. similarly mourned the news of the Waldorf Astoria’s conversion to condos and reminded us of the Plaza’s—that took the soul out of the place. In “Another Condo-Conversion Casualty The Waldorf Astoria is going the lamentable way of the Plaza,” he spells out his prediction.

He pointed out that Paris and London have their grand hotels and now New York no longer will have any. Like fortunate people of a certain age who grew up in NYC or visited, he reminisced about having lunch at the Plaza with his father when he was a child. I remember tea with my mother.

Vintage photo of Plaza Hotel. Photo: boweryboyshistory.com

Vintage photo of Plaza Hotel. Photo: boweryboyshistory.com

“These days the Plaza feels like the victim of some genteel version of a neutron bomb—the property remains intact but the people are largely missing.” Gardner wrote, and he asks: “Aren’t there enough shiny new billionaire condo developments rising along 57th Street and Central Park South to satisfy demand? Must we squander our inheritance?”

A few days before Gardner’s article, the New York Post covered the demise of the Campbell Apartment. In “Cocktail Shakeup at Grand Central Terminal,” Julia Marsh and Laura Italiano reported that the 1920s glam office-turned vintage bar–and Mark Grossich—lost the lease after 17 years. Grossich’s rent was $350,000/year and he offered $800,000 on a 10-year lease, but  Scott Gerber, who said he was approached by MTA advisors and didn’t seek out the property, will pay $1.1 million/year. Grossich said he’d counter offer on the highest bid plus 2.5 percent. He said the MTA told him: “They way overbid you. We can’t do that.”

The reporters wrote that last year “the MTA began aggressively overhauling Grand Central’s restaurants and bars hoping for higher rents and ever-more-high-end lease holders.”

Campbell Apartment. Photo: alamy.com

Campbell Apartment. Photo: alamy.com

After years of neglect, Grossich restored the space almost two decades ago. It had served for a while as a “pokey; a cell for all the wastrels and drifters that came through Grand Central.” He spent $millions. Marsh and Italiano described him as a “master of the timeless, intimate cocktail lounge, temples to single-malt scotch, fine cigars and tufted upholstery.”

The new lease holder “plans to modernize.” Marsh and Italiano described what Gerber—who runs “hip, jangly and galvanic lounges”—has in mind. It will be “something less Brooks Brothers, more limited edition sneakers and Gucci-T-shirts.” He caters to athletes, musicians and celebrities who don’t wear jackets. The space is landmarked, so he can’t touch the walls, ceiling or windows. “But he’s installing a costly new stone bar top, new bar and kitchen equipment, a new heating and air conditioning system.” He’ll add chandeliers, high-tech lighting and instead of big band tunes Gerber promises “eclectic music.”

Funny. Americans travel the world to visit and admire ancient ruins, churches, mosques, estates, chateaux and celebrated historic landmarks but they don’t seem to have the same sensibility about their own history. Increasingly the past is considered fuddy duddy and proponents are fatally old fashioned and terminally wrong. And there are fewer and fewer places for them to enjoy around here. Why is this? Will we eventually be sorry? Will you miss NYC’s last grand hotel? Does the city need yet another luxury condo?

Fendi leather Bugs, $1,000

Fendi leather Bugs, $1,000

 

Service of Optimism

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

Optimism

Americans are encouraged—even expected–to be happy and optimistic. Corporate, popular and sports cultures promote a “you can do it, anything’s possible” approach: it’s the Declaration of Independence’s “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” in action.

"Making the Bed," Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

“Making the Bed,” Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

New York Times best-selling authors such as Gretchen Rubin study happiness and travel the world sharing tips encouraging small changes to achieve it. Making your bed daily is one antidote to consider if you can’t correct big things such as a miserable job. Rubin recently addressed The American Society of Journalists & Authors as a result of which David Levine interviewed her for a blog post “Gretchen Rubin: serious about happiness: The bestselling author of The Happiness Project talks about the discipline of happiness – and what you should avoid doing.”

I thought of our culture and of Rubin in reading Walter Russell Mead’s opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal: “For the U.S., a Disappointing World: The chaos in Iraq is just the latest evidence that history doesn’t follow America’s optimistic script.”

The foreign affairs and humanities professor at Bard College pointed out the similarities between Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush in their approach to foreign affairs: “While it is true that both presidents got some important things wrong, it is what unites them rather than what divides them that is the root cause of our troubles. Both Messrs. Bush and Obama, like many of their fellow citizens, radically underestimate the dangers and difficulties in the path of historical progress.

Rosy the Riveter“Americans tend to believe that history is easy and that things usually work out for the best. When the French Revolution began, many Americans followed Thomas Jefferson’s lead in thinking that the overthrow of Louis XVI would lead rapidly to democracy in Europe. Before World War I, most Americans believed that another great European war was unthinkable; when that war ended, President Woodrow Wilson was sure that a global democratic peace was on the way.”

He pointed out that the American standard of living has always been higher than others– starting after the Revolution—and that it affects our rosy attitude. He wrote: “This happy history shapes our thinking about the world more than most of us know. Whether conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, Americans tend to think that history doesn’t matter much, that win-win solutions are easily found and that world history is moving inexorably toward a better and more peaceful place.”

Additional excerpts from his thoughtful piece: “The holiday from history came to an end on 9/11, but the Bush administration’s subsequent approach to Iraq and the Middle East dramatically underestimated the difficulty of building stable democracies in a troubled region.”

isolationMead also observed: “Today we see a very different world. We are being forced to remember something we’d rather forget: that history is hard, that the choices it forces on us are sometimes harsh and that not everything ends in win-win.”

Isolation isn’t the answer, he concluded. “What we need instead is realistic goals and historical modesty—perhaps, at last, a foreign policy that is more about preventing catastrophes than constructing utopias.”

Do you think that too much optimism can be problematic and that our eternal search for happiness and peace for all is unrealistic? Does this approach steer our leaders into making inappropriate decisions?

road ahead

Service of History

Monday, September 12th, 2011

 world-trade-center-fountain

I couldn’t rip myself from TV coverage of the 10th anniversary recognition of September 11th. Like Memorial Day–even the Fourth of July–the significance of the day will no doubt eventually be forgotten by the majority of future generations.

Over the weekend I heard a New York radio talk show host taunt a caller who admitted reading about Abraham Lincoln. He asked his caller: “Why would you want to read about him?” implying that there was no relevance to that old information–literally “so yesterday.”

I had a client who scoffed at my suggestion that he partner with a museum because “it made our product seem old fashioned.” I wondered if he realized that 99.99 percent of it was inspired by classic patterns with roots hundreds if not thousands of years old.

Honoring the people who died a decade ago isn’t history yet. It still falls under current events as the public continues to feel psychological and international ripples and family members suffer palpable loss that makes them cry while strangers join them.

citizens-of-london2Elaine Siegel, a friend and PR guru, reads a lot: Non fiction exclusively. She suggested I might like “Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour” by Lynne Olson. It takes place just before and during World War II and covers Edward R. Murrow who directed European news for CBS; Averell Harriman, who ran the Lend-Lease program and John Gilbert Winant, U.S. ambassador to Britain. I also recommend it not only because it is a good read; the back stories are chilling. It makes me shiver to imagine what goes on behind the scenes today.

Given that technology moves at  unprecedented speed the talk show host isn’t the only one to sneer at history. Is history relevant anymore? When do current events become history? Do people feel they have to have witnessed or lived through a situation to care about it? Did you watch any of the 9/11 coverage?

speed-of-sound1

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