Monday, June 10, 2013

The New Aristocracy (--slight rant alert)

The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote is the 3-volume monster that almost every reenactor or Civil War buff has collecting dust bunnies on his or her bookshelf at home, though very few of us actually plan to read them.  Weighing in at exactly 2,934 pages and (not kidding) 9.8 pounds in the hardcover bound edition, it is of course, a towering and monumental effort of one man who was considered THE authority on the War of the Rebellion.  But amazingly, he wrote all this over the span of his life without even citing any of his sources. I guess fifty years ago you could get away with a lot more than you can now...

While I don't think I will live long enough to read it in full, I do occasionally open to a random page in one of the volumes and start reading when I badly need a cure for my late-night insomnia.  Sometimes, a fragment of contemporary sentiment from the period makes it into his writing, and I can't help but notice how amazingly relevant these passages still are, and how unstable our economy and political climate is becoming as of late. Honestly, our 2012 presidential election was about as ugly as Lincoln vs. Douglas in 1860. 

This particular passage, on page 148 of volume II: Fredericksberg to Meridian, is part of Foote's treatise on the origins of the term "shoddy," coined during the war as meaning any cheap and poorly made product of abysmal quality and high price. In a rare impulse, the author actually thought to mention the source as the "New York World," a newspaper at the time. Though he doesn't bother to say what year or date it was printed, so we have no way of ever finding the primary document he got it from.

But here it is exactly as written:

"The lavish profession in which the old southern cotton aristocracy used to indulge is completely eclipsed by the dash, parade and magnificence of the new northern shoddy aristocracy of this period. Ideas of cheapness and economy are thrown to the winds. The individual who makes the most money--no matter how-- and spends the most money-- no matter for what-- is considered the greatest man.  To be extravagant is to be fashionable. These facts sufficiently account for the immense and brilliant audiences at the opera and the theatres, and until the final crash comes such audiences undoubtedly will continue. The world has seen its iron age, its silver age, its golden age, and its brazen age. This is the age of shoddy.

The new brown-stone palaces on Fifth Avenue, the new equipages at the Park, the new diamonds which dazzle unaccustomed eyes, the new silks and satins which rustle overloudly, as if to demand attention, the the new people who live in the palaces, and ride in the carriages, and wear the diamonds and silks--all are shoddy... They set or follow the shoddy fashions, and fondly imagine themselves a la mode de Paris, when they are only a la mode de Shoddy.  They are shoddy brokers on Wall Street, or shoddy manufacturers of shoddy goods, or shoddy contractors for shoddy articles for a shoddy government.  Six days in the week they are shoddy business men.  On the seventh day they are shoddy Christians."
These words are frighteningly relevant if you ask me.  We, as a modern country, have become weak and our political infrastructure is rank with corruption.  We are no longer the great nation, envied by all, that won every single war we ever fought. We are now a police state that gets involved in foreign conflicts to "protect freedom," when really all we are protecting is the lavish retirements of our congressmen.  We barely manufacture anything over here anymore, and instead our corporations cut our wages, cut our salary and farm out our lost jobs to people overseas who will produce cheap, poor quality products at a fraction of the cost. While our Congress moves to increase taxes on the working class, raise the cost of living, make groceries and utilities unaffordable and abolish government aid and universal healthcare, they continually vote again and again to block any and all efforts to fix this upside-down former-Capitalist economy gone wrong, and then promptly take a vacation and a salary bonus.  They don't care if nothing gets done, as long as nothing gets done while the opposing party is in office.  Bi-partisanship has completely gotten in the way of progress.  

In fact, the words in the above article still ring so unabashedly true in the year 2013 that it makes me very, very sad to see how little has changed in spite of all our progress.  Let me translate the above newspaper column into a more modern context and you will see what I mean:

"The lavish and luxurious lifestyle in which the "Greatest generation" Baby-boomer aristocracy used to enjoy is completely replaced by the glitter, glam and "swag" of the cheap aristocracy of the New Millennium.  The individual who makes the most money--no matter how-- and spends the most money-- no matter for what-- is considered the most successful.  To be excessive is to be trendy. These facts effectively explain the immense and fabulous glorification of the celebrities like the Khardashians and the Royal British Family, wealthy people with no talent whatsoever and far too much money to spend in a lifetime, and until the Zombie Apocalypse comes, people will continue to pay upwards of $100 a month for Verizon FiOS and Comcast digital cable so they can watch their dysfunctional lives play out in their living rooms. The world has seen its iron age, its silver age, its golden age, and its brazen age. This is the age of reality trash.

The new multi-million dollar palaces of the internet giants on HGTV, the new diamonds on Lady Gaga's bikini bra and thong ensemble which dazzle the teenage youth of the nation, the new violently clashing neon Reebok sneakers and ugly Crocs which scream in technicolor, as if to demand attention, the new "beautiful people" who live in the palaces, with the teenage sons driving Mustangs, and wear the diamonds and Gucci, Dior and Prada--all are trashy and trendy... They set or follow the trendy-trashy fashions on Twitter and Facebook, and fondly imagine themselves to be living this "charmed" life, when they are only festering in their own garbage.  They are the terrible brokers on Wall Street, or terrible manufacturers of cheap "planned obsolescence" electronics that break down at only 13 months and must be replaced before the end of their one-year limited warranty, or cheap contractors for cheap poisonous lead-paint-covered plastic toys made in China.  Six days a week they are cheap business men.  On the seventh day they go to church to pray that their football team makes the playoffs."

Not too much of a stretch, is it?

Beneath this passage are words by Foote himself.
Nor were journalists and previously wealthy men the only ones to express a growing indignation.  Wages had not risen in step with the rising cost of food and rent and other necessities of life, and this had brought on a growth of the trade-union movement, with mass meetings held in cities throughout the North to protest the unequal distribution of advantages and hardships."

...And we all know how kindly the authorities took to the Occupy movement.

He goes on to say, or claim, that Lincoln addressed Congress with the following message:
 "Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor. and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

The Civil War: A Narrative: Fredericksberg to Meridian, p. 148-149. 
 Because of those and other beliefs about equality in the American people, Lincoln was shot in the back of the head, just as Kennedy was shot for thinking much the same things.  Martin Luther King was assassinated almost 100 years after the Civil War ended, for saying that free black Americans should enjoy the same basic privileges and rights as their white counterparts.  Could it be that great people who make positive change in our country are not allowed to exist, because they make the rich lose money and try to uplift the poor and suffering who struggle every day for survival?

Think about this.   

Our country is broken, and anyone who tries to fix it will be murdered. Anyone in a position of sufficient power who wants to speak out against greed, injustice and intolerance must be silenced.

The old hatred still runs very deep in some areas of our society, and this is one of the ugliest facts of our heritage that many Civil War historians won't touch with a 30-foot pole.

I don't know where this is going, but the reality of living in this supposedly "free democratic God-loving country"  makes me sad and angry.  I'll say no more for now and leave the rest to this guy:

People say they like to do reenacting to bring history back to life. I just use it to escape the daily reality I am forced to live in.

1 comment:

  1. The New York Herald published the story in 1863.

    Lyttelton Times, Volume XXI, Issue 1199, 20 February 1864, Page 5. But this publication took it from the one you referenced.