December 06, 2007

What was different at the end of the American Century?

The twentieth century, it is generally agreed, was the American Century. This webpage is dedicated to studying where the United States is headed in this new century, which cannot belong to the US to the same degree. It seems appropriate to reflect back over what changed between 1900 and 2000 in this first blog. For the nation changed stupendously in that time.

By 2006, the American population had grown to 300 million, four times that of 1900. The people were no longer concentrated in the Northeast, but had spread more evenly across the country. A rural nation had become urban and then suburban. A nation where only men over 21, and primarily white men, could vote, had expanded the franchise to all its citizens over 18. A nation that had banned African Americans from most public amusements and often denied them the vote had elected many Black men and women to the office of mayor, governor, and US Senator. In 2006 the public considered Barak Obama and Condoleezza Rice suitable for the presidency. A largely white nation had become a hub of multiculturalism.

A nation primarily of farmers and blue-collar workers had become a nation of office workers. A nation lighted mostly by gas and powered almost entirely by steam had electrified. A nation that once relied on horses and railroads had one car for every adult, plus an enormous airline industry. A few small companies making five-minute silent films had grown into the massive film industry. A nation devoted to the live entertainment of vaudeville, theaters, and other public places had largely privatized leisure by embracing the phonograph, radio, television, and Internet. A nation so uncertain about the value of its own literature that many still read British novels and poetry had both rediscovered the great writers of its first centuries and had produced a new pantheon of authors. A nation that once accepted the supremacy of European fine art had pioneered abstractionism and established New York as the world art capital. A nation bent on prohibiting alcohol had not only accepted its consumption but also fostered excellent vineyards and breweries.

There were more problematic developments, however. An isolationist nation with no standing army in peacetime had become the world's only superpower, capable of intervention anywhere. A nation that had identified itself with democracy had at times supported totalitarian regimes abroad. A nation proud of its Bill of Rights had imprisoned men for years on a military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without pressing charges against them or allowing them the rights normally granted to prisoners. A nation that had periodically been obsessed with "100% Americanism," the dangers of Catholicism, Fascism, and Bolshevism, found a new enemy, the religiously inspired terrorist. A nation that had prided itself on being the asylum of immigrants from around the world built an expensive wall across parts of the Mexican border, in an unsuccessful attempt to keep out illegal immigrants. A nation that had appeared to be shifting toward secularism in 1900 now seemed to welcome fundamentalism, and religious sectarianism not only flourished but gained increasing political influence.

How important were each of these various elements of the "American Century"? That is what this Blog seeks to understand.

If you want a more detailed retrospective, have a look at The American Century
[coauthored with Thomas Johansen], which is now available from SDU Forlag.