The Problem With America’s Culture of Overwork

It says a lot that there even needs to be a debate on whether or not overwork is a good thing. But as working more for less becomes the norm in American life — often unquestionably — clearly it is a discussion worth having.

Let us start by putting things into perspective: contrary to popular belief, Japan is no longer the developed country with the most annual working hours by average. That dubious distinction now falls on the U.S. As the Nation reports:

By international standards, Americans put in a lot of time on the job. Among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we’re above the average, clocking 1,789 hours at work in a year—more than Japan, Germany, and South Korea. Each week, the average American puts in 41 hours per week, compared to 38.4 in the United Kingdom, 36.9 in Germany, and just 32.7 in the Netherlands. We also have more workaholics: The percentage of U.S. workers who put in more than 45 hours a week is about double that of Germany, the Netherlands, or France. While we’ve decreased our workload by 112 hours a year over the past four decades, other countries have far outpaced us: The French dropped theirs by 491 hours, the Dutch by 425 and the Canadians by 215.

Doubtless, many Americans consider such a work ethic to be both morally desirable and perfectly acceptable; hence our unique position in the developed world in terms of not mandating paid maternal leave or vacation time.

One might think that all that work contributes to our status as the world’s largest economy by a significant margin. But this is yet another widespread misconception.  Continue reading

“What to the Slaves is Fourth of July?”

DemocracyNow.org has an excellent video of James Earl Jones reading one of Frederick Douglass’ most famous speeches, The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro. It was first given on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York, in an address to the Rochester Ladies Antislavery Society. Born into slavery, Douglass became a key leader of the abolitionist movie, and one of America’s most gifted writers and orators.

I think you will find Jones’ emotive and iconic voice to be a great fit for such a powerful and eloquent speech. You can read the transcript here. (Unfortunately, I cannot product the video here, so just click the first hyperlink to see if for yourself.)

Mount McKinley to Revert Back to Original Native Name of Denali

After an over three-decade fight to change the name of North America’s tallest mountain, the federal government has ruled favorably for indigenous Americans and their supporters. As the New York Times reports:

The move came on the eve of Mr. Obama’s trip to Alaska, where he will spend three days promoting aggressive action to combat climate change, and is part of a series of steps he will make there meant to address the concerns of Alaska Native tribes.

It is the latest bid by the president to fulfill his 2008 campaign promise to improve relations between the federal government and the nation’s Native American tribes, an important political constituency that has a long history of grievances against the government.

Denali’s name has long been seen as one such slight, regarded as an example of cultural imperialism in which a Native American name with historical roots was replaced by an American one having little to do with the place.

The central Alaska mountain has officially been called Mount McKinley for almost a century. In announcing that Sally Jewell, the secretary of the interior, had used her power to rename it, Mr. Obama was paying tribute to the state’s Native population, which has referred to the site for generations as Denali, meaning “the high one” or “the great one”.

The peak, at more than 20,000 feet, plays a central role in the creation story of the Koyukon Athabascans, a group that has lived in Alaska for thousands of years.

Not only was the mountain’s original namesake, President William McKinley, not born in Alaska (he was an Ohio native) but he had no ties to the state whatsoever, nor did he ever visit it (at the time Alaska was still a fresh and largely unexplored territory). Plus, as The Atlantic points out, the mountain acquired the president’s name under very suspicious circumstances (namely as an “epic act of tolling”, to use the article’s own apt term).

So given all that, I think this is a sensible move for more reasons than one.

Alaskan Native Code Talkers Honored for WWII Service

Despite enduring generations of oppression and deprivation by the United States, indigenous Americans have a long and distinguished history of serving in the very armed forces that were often used to suppress them or their ancestors. Many did so for their own personal reasons, or because they sincerely believed in the values of the country they became part of, whatever its flaws and shortcomings in practice.

Last week, several of these Native American veterans was finally honored for their underappreciated yet invaluable service. As Juneau Empire reported:

[Jeff] David Jr. was one of 200 individual code talkers or their family members who received a silver medal at Wednesday’s ceremony. Each of the 33 tribes recognized received a gold medal. The medals were engraved with a design specific to each tribe.

Native American languages were used during World War I and World War II. Their use is credited for saving the lives of many service members. An estimated 400 to 500 Native American code talkers served in the United States Marine Corps.

America’s indigenous languages were ideal for U.S. war efforts because they were known to very few people outside of their respective tribes, and many are isolated from languages native to other parts of the world. Code talkers were specially trained to use their language so that only they could understand it. A Tlingit code talker would have used a special set of words that might have sounded like nonsense to another Tlingit speaker who wasn’t a trained code talker.

“It made me really proud of my dad” David Jr. said. “He accomplished a lot of things in his life, but this tops it. It’s really icing on the cake”.

Of the relatively few Americans who know about the code talkers, most associate the practice with the Navajo, who made up a majority of code talkers, or the Cherokee and Choctaw, who pioneered the strategy during the First World War. Only over the last couple of decades have these obscure heroes been honored. Smaller but no less important  tribes, such as the Tlingit, Lakota,  Meskwaki, and Comanche, are only recently being given formal due credit (Only in 2008 did Congress officially pass an act honoring every code talker who served in the U.S. military during the world wars with a Congressional Gold Medal.)

As Juneau Empire points out, the recent awards ceremony offers validation in more ways than one.

For the tribes recognized during the ceremony, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s speech might have best summed up the irony of having the U.S. government recognizing Native American languages in a positive way.

“In the late 1800’s, The United States government forced Native American children to attend English-only boarding schools”. Reid said. “Native Children were torn from their families, taken far from home in box cars and buggies, given English names and forced to cut their hair short. Teachers beat the children with leather belts when they spoke in their native tongues”.

The government told them their language had no value. But the children held onto their languages, culture and history despite great personal risk. And in this nation’s hour of greatest need, Native American languages proved to have great value indeed.

Commander William “Ozzie” Sheakley, who oversees the Southeast Alaska Native Veterans, received the medal on behalf of the Tlingit tribe. Sheakley said Reid’s speech was validating.

“We’ve been talking about how we were treated for years and years and years, and nobody seemed to care”, Sheakley said. “Now it’s coming out from other people, which is kind of nice to hear”.

It might be small and belated comfort in the grand scheme of things, but for proud, close-knit, and historically conscious tribes like the Tlingit, it must make a world a difference.

Boston Leads the Way in People-Centered Urban Planning

When it comes to making cities more liveable and efficient, many Americans tend to look abroad for examples, namely to places like Germany, the Netherlands, and Singapore. But it is nice to find a model closer to home, especially since it gives lie to the notion that America’s car-culture poses unique challenges that foreign cities do not face.

As PRI reports, Boston is one of the biggest and most prominent participants a new movement that is sweeping communities of all sizes across the United States. Continue reading

The First and Only U.S. Museum on Slavery

I was surprised to learn recently that the United States has only one permanent museum dedicated to the history of slavery: the Whitney Plantation near Wallace, Louisiana, which opened just this past December.

According to The Atlantic, the museum is the brainchild of a white, 78-year-old lawyer named John Cummings, who has spent 16 years and $8 million of his own fortune to build the project. Partnering with Senegalese-born scholar Ibrahima Seck, who serves as the museum director, Cummings hopes to use the Whitney Plantation to educate people on the realities of slavery, both historically and in terms of its modern legacy.

You can see a great short film about it here or below.

While American society is known for its poor historical memory in general (though especially as it pertains to uncomfortable matters like slavery), it still intrigued me that there has never been a museum about this seminal topic in U.S. history.

Foreigners of the American Revolution: The Prussian Who Helped Make the U.S. Army

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (Wikimedia)

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (Wikimedia)

In a previous post, I outlined the role of Hessian mercenaries fighting for the British in the American Revolutionary War. But plenty of Germans fought for the Patriots, too, of whom the most famous is Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.

Born in Prussia, he joined the military at age 17, and saw combat in the Seven Years’ War, then one of the biggest conflicts in European history. By the end of the war, he had risen to become captain, and even served as one of the right-hand men of Frederick the Great, one of history’s most brilliant military reformers.

Discharged from the Prussian Army once the war was concluded, Steuben found himself unemployed and deeply in debt. Through a chance meeting with the French minister of war, he was introduced to none other than Benjamin Franklin, the noted Francophile and diplomat who was trying to garner support for the Patriots in Europe. The French believed that the Americans could use an experienced soldier from one of the continent’s leading military powers, and doubtless Franklin agreed.

Steuben’s credentials and force of personality made such an impression on George Washington, that he was immediately appointed as Inspector General. Though a temporary post, it would grant the Prussian considerable influence in managing the training, logistics, and discipline of this ragtag, unprofessional, yet spirited Continental Army (which consisted of various local and provincial militias slapped together). Continue reading

Foreigners of the American Revolution: The Hessians

Hessians. (Landofthebrave.info)

During the American Revolutionary War, Great Britain tried to shore up its small troop numbers in North America by hiring German mercenaries, known collectively as Hessians, after the state that contributed the largest contingent, Hesse-Kassel. (King George III had German roots, including a royal title within the Holy Roman Empire, and was thus able to pull some strings with various German princes.)

Numbering around 30,000, the Hessians made up one-quarter of Britain’s forces in the war, and fought as distinct units led by their own commanders, albeit under overall British control. Participating in almost every major campaign, they were a visible presence in the conflict, and were proficient fighters with a fearful reputation (among both Loyalists and Patriots).

But despite their military advantage, and the fact that mercenaries were standard in European warfare at the time, the Hessians were a huge public relations disaster for the British. In fact, their use was one of the main factors that convinced many Americans to fight for the Patriot cause (at the start of the war, the majority of colonials, including many Founding Fathers, merely wanted greater rights and autonomy, rather than outright independence).

The reasons for this are twofold. Continue reading

Birthright Citizenship in the U.S. and Around the World

As a nation of immigrants, it is not surprising that the United States adheres to a concept of citizenship known as jus soli, or birthright citizenship, whereby anyone born on American soil is automatically a U.S. citizen — regardless of their parents’ legal status. My making it easier for people to become politically and civically integrated after just one generation, the U.S. has been able to harness the ideas, skills, and labor of the world, whilst also securing the loyalty and contributions of millions.

Birthright citizenship has been (an albeit controversial) bedrock of U.S. law and identity since the mid-19th century, around the time that immigration kicked into high gear. Before the U.S. Civil War, African Americans — even those freed from slavery or born to freed slaves — were emphatically not citizens; the Supreme Court ruled as such in Scott v. Sandford in 1857.

Only with the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 — one of the three post-Civil War “Reconstruction Amendments” that greatly expanded political rights — were “all persons born or naturalized in the United States…citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside”, to quote the first sentence of the amendment.

While the language of the amendment made it very clear that black Americans would enjoy U.S. citizenship, things weren’t so cut-and-dry for other groups. In particular, it did not address the status of Native Americans born on reservations, which were and remain legally sovereign entities (a very complex arrangement that is often subject to disputes to this day). And what about children born to Chinese immigrants, who were explicitly prohibited from being naturalized citizens via the 1882 Chinese Exclusion ActContinue reading

The 95th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage in America

On this day in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, prohibiting U.S. citizens from being denied the right to vote based on sex, and thereby guaranteeing women’s suffrage in the country. It was authored by leading suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and first introduced in Congress in 1878 by California Senator Aaron A. Sargent.

Although the American women’s rights movement began with the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in New York, it truly began to take off after the U.S. Civil War, when activists advocated for universal suffrage to be included in the Reconstruction amendments (the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments).As part of this “New Departure” strategy, groups like the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), led by Stanton and Anthony, pursued legal cases arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment (which granted universal citizenship) and Fifteenth Amendment (which granted the vote irrespective of race) together served to guarantee voting rights to women. Continue reading