History, Technology and American Values
Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences,
University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Some American Themes
- Individualism vs. state
- Group vs. Individual Rights
- Social Impacts--views on welfare, etc.
- "Edison" myth--Edison consciously cultivated image of himself as solitary inventor.
- "Persecuted genius" myth
- "Self-appointed expert" myth--rationalizations for disregarding
expert opinion when it clashes with personal beliefs.
Mobility and homogenization
- Chance to start over again
- Lack of local roots
- Resistance to both illegitimate and legitimate authority.
- Many "authoritarian" movements are also anti-authoritarian.
(Nazi Germany a prime example--Hitler based his appeal on resentment over German surrender terms).
Idealism vs. pragmatism
- Romantic view of Westward expansion.
- Louisiana and Alaska purchases ridiculed at the time.
- "Give me your tired, your poor..."
- Restrictive immigration policies.
- Idealization of inventors.
- Reality--steamboat was called "Fulton's Folly"
- The Golden Fleece Award
Myth: Lone "practical" innovators stand in opposition to a
hidebound intellectual establishment that says, "It can't be
Reality: Innovations often pursued by intellectuals who are
ridiculed by the "practical" common man.
The Switch: Opponents of innovation in the present identify
themselves with innovators of the past.
High level of violence for a developed nation
Ten homicides/100,000 vs. 1-3 in most other developed nations.
Optimism; faith in future and technology.
Loss of this faith in the 1960's and 1970's was a major blow.
- Incongruous choices: 1968 - one survey respondent preferred Robert Kennedy (very liberal) but would vote for George Wallace (ultraconservative) if Kennedy not nominated!
- Two-party system a major result?
- Grudges often short-lived
- "C'mon, already, forget the Alamo"--gag sticker
- Compare to Ireland or Yugoslavia, where grudges centuries old still cause bloodshed
- First post-war ambassador to Vietnam spent 6 years there as P.O.W.
Ideological conflicts frequently expressed in pragmatic issues.
- Gun control and crime.
- Church-state separation
- Aid to parochial schools
- Nuclear power
The American Concept of Rights
"Inalienable"--Declaration of Independence
- Pursuit of Happiness
Explicit Constitutional Rights
- Religious freedom: Amendment I
- Freedom of Speech: Amendment I
- Freedom of the Press: Amendment I
- Peaceful Assembly and Petition: Amendment I
- Right to bear arms: Amendment II
- Protection of Property Rights: Amendments IV, V, XIV
- Trial by Jury, Due Process: Amendments V, VI, VII, VIII
- Freedom from Slavery: Amendment XIII
- Equal Protection of the Laws: Amendment XIV
- Right to Vote: Amendment XV, XIX, XVI
Inferred or interpreted Constitutional Rights
- Equal Opportunity
- Reading of Suspect Rights
- Free Counsel for Indigent
Some Historical Factors in American Values
Roots of Libertarian vs. Communitarian conflict
Popular image of colonists: they came to American to do
their own thing.
Groups like the Pilgrims and Puritans came to America explicitly
to construct a society around certain values. Individual rights
were subordinate to these values. The advantages of living in the
colony were contingent on adherence, or at least non-opposition
to these values. Contrary to popular misconception, these groups
were not at all inconsistent with their own principles when they
Other Communitarian Systems
- 19th Century Socialist groups (Amana Colonies, Iowa)
- Mormons in Utah
- Amish, Mennonites, etc.
- Communes of the 1960's.
Failure to appreciate the roots of the Libertarian-Communitarian
dichotomy is probably the biggest single misconception in
contemporary values conflicts.
Revolution and Development of Constitution
- Revolution as a source of identity and role models
- Revolution was conservative (contrast with France a decade later)
- Development of the Constitution; resolution of conflicts
- Centralized vs. Decentralized Government
- North vs. South
- Urban vs. Rural
- Nature and Range of Individual Rights
- Origin of many U.S. political values
- Separation of powers
Why did the process work?
History affords surprisingly few
examples of revolutions that did not degenerate into oppression
as flagrant as the old system. Some possible reasons:
- Driven by middle and upper classes with a vested interest in keeping
the scope of change limited and controlled.
- Took place during a period when there was a general belief in the
effectiveness of reason (but compare the French Revolution, which claimed to deify Reason!).
- Unusual concentration of talented leaders.
Technology is so intimately
connected to American values that it seems impossible to picture
a time when there was ever a debate about the desirability of
technology. But exactly that happened about 1780-1820.
Held that the values of a agrarian society were
superior to those of industrial societies and that America should
remain rural and agrarian. Pointed to the abuses of England as a
warning. Essentially an elitist, estate-owner philosophy.
Argued that industry did not have to lead to abuse
and that American would be dependent on Europe without its own
This conflict has been played and re-played throughout American
history, usually whenever technology approaches a breakthrough
into a new level of intensity. It was an essential ingredient of
the Civil War, which pitted the industrial North against the
agrarian South, and appears today in controversies like
Early 19th Century Industrialism.
The Hamiltonians won the debate by default
when industrialists began operating despite the concerns of the
Jeffersonians. The New England textile mills were leaders in this
movement. Many industrialists (not all) saw their role as social
agents as well as industrialists. They offered education for
workers, and so on. Adam Smith had done the same thing 50 years
before in England. The problem with this sort of "industrial
socialism" is that it is a lot easier and more profitable to run
an industry without paying attention to social goals, and later
industrialists were not as concerned with them.
The Civil War
- Has been called the Second American Revolution
- Triumph of the North
- Sweeping Social Change
- Ending of Slavery
- Acceptance of Catholicism as mainstream (nurses in Civil War hospitals were often nuns.)
- Source of identity and role models
- Introduction of modern technology to warfare
The Frontier Experience
Some Frontier Experiences
- Germany, 800-1000 (Settling of Black Forest, Baltic shore)
- Siberia, 1600-1900
- North America, 1600-1900
What makes the U.S. frontier experience so unique?
- Resources were plentiful
- Concept of private property
- Incentive to develop and exploit resources
- Freedom of movement
- Opportunity to make a new start
- Opportunity for advancement, adventure, self-esteem
- Freedom from restrictions
- Legal restrictions
- Physical limitations (free land and resources)
- Advanced technology
- Progress rapid enough to be visible.
- Contact maintained with mainstream
- Comparative safety
- Very few wagon trains were really attacked by Indians, and far more
cowboys died of disease, accidents and exposure than bullets.
The Frontier as a Mythic Force
- Rich source of legend and role models.
- Until late 1960's, Westerns were among the most numerous TV shows.
- Compare the image of the West in our culture with the image of
Siberia in Russian culture.
Re-thinking the Frontier saga
- Civil Rights campaign of 1960's and later Native American activism
questioned the nobility of the frontier and its treatment of native peoples.
- The Vietnam War dimmed the hero-crusader image.
- Environmentalism questioned the notion of inexhaustible resources
and exploitation as desirable.
- Cynicism of 1960's reflected in anti-hero Western parodies (Clint
Eastwood "spaghetti Westerns")
- Birth of the assembly line
- Birth of the labor movement
- Immigration and the "melting pot"
Contrary to current myth, the term "melting pot" never meant total loss of ethnic identity.
World War II
- Birth of high-tech civilization
- Emergence of the U.S. as Superpower
- "Policeman of the World" idea has its roots in late 19th Century
"Gunboat Diplomacy" and in British notion of the "White Man's Burden" that justified British imperialism.
- Growth of the military-industrial complex
- As an idea of the amount of growth, note that when the Pentagon
was built in World War II, critics asked what would be done with
all the extra space after the war!
The Canadian Experience
Same continent, same root culture, same
language, but some surprising differences.
- 1776 American Revolution Begins
- 1800-1850 Significant Reforms in England
- 1867 Canada created by Confederation
Comparison of U.S. and Canadian Roots
- Settled mostly by those dissatisfied with British system.
- Political system reflects reaction to abuses of British System.
- Settled by colonists who were not so dissatisfied.
- Refused to join U.S. in Revolution.
- Refuge for loyalists who fled U.S. during and after revolution.
- Political system evolved from reformed British system.
Canadian Values and Institutions compared to U.S.
- Much lower level of conflict with Native Americans.
- Lower white settlement density.
- More sedentary Canadian tribal lifestyles.
- Less white resistance to regulation.
- Lower level of violence
- U.S. annual homicide rate 10/100,000
- Canadian annual homicide rate 2.5/100,000
- Greater acceptance of social intervention
- National Health Care
- Aid to Church Schools
- Cultural pluralism
- English/French, Quebec originally settled by France, ceded to England in 1759.
- Only in Louisiana (French) and New Mexico (Spanish) do any states officially recognize another language as co-historical with English; (though multi-lingual ballots are required in many areas by Federal Law, the non-English population post-dates the English majority in almost all cases).
- Lower rate of technological progress?
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Created 22 May 1997
Last Update 22 May 1997
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