Thursday, October 02, 2014

Learning from History

One of my friends wrote a book about town meeting a few years back. I contributed some stories and research. I spent a day at the Gorham Historical Society reading old town reports. The earliest town reports were mostly inventories of what the town owned. Shovels, snow rollers, rakes, and other tools. Those terse summaries show how the town began to grow and change.

The town reports also changed over time.  Early reports contained a narrative school report. The town meeting narratives came later. In 1891, advertising was introduced in the town report. In 1895, the town report contained a report from the Board of Health on the topic of sanitation. The school outhouses were decried as “unsightly and unclean.” Gorham’s status as a burgeoning summer resort was also a concern. The Alpine House hotel was lauded as “first class” for emptying their sewerage into the river.

In 1896, the town report included a list from the Library Trustees of the 476 books that were purchased for the new library. The list was updated for several years in subsequent town reports, along with a stern admonition each year that young readers needed to use more care when handling books. In the 1901 report, the library has 1700 books. In 1902 there were new volumes from Darwin, Kant, Hegel, and Adam Smith.

Then, as now, the town reports included births, marriages, and deaths. The causes of death were interesting. In 1897, there were deaths from “exema rubrance", spasms, a gunshot wound, and “general decline.” In 1899, two people were run over by cars. In 1901 a woman died of “natural decline” at age 91. In 1904 the tailor died of a bullet wound.

1903 was the first year there was an official notice of town meeting, and the first year the town report was indexed.

In 1904 the report contained 32 pages from the road agent that included every ditch dug, every man who plowed or shoveled snow, or fixed a bridge. Many more roads required many more man-hours. Twenty men were paid varying amounts for fighting forest fires.

1905 was the first year with a police report. Some 70 people were arrested for “drunk.” In 1908 there were 48 completed water closets in the town.

From counting shovels to water closets, the history of the town unfolds. I’m betting you cringed when you read about the hotel dumping sewage into the river. Polluted rivers were taken for granted when I was growing up. We moved to Groveland, MA when I was 10, and the nearby Merrimack River reeked in the summertime. The shoe factories along the river in Haverhill emptied their sewage right into the river. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire in 1968. The environmental movement began. We stopped throwing trash out of our car windows. We stopped dumping stuff into rivers. We learned.

Human history is comprised of lessons learned, followed by vigilance, followed by the erosion of vigilance started by people who know we can do it better this time, followed by either the same problem or a variation of it. Rinse, lather, and repeat.

Reaganomics, supply side, trickle down, laissez faire – whatever we want to call the response to Keynesian economics has been a failure since it was imposed during the Reagan administration. We’re encouraged to believe that all of that wealth concentrating at the top will eventually trickle down to the peons at the bottom. This type of economic policy has been failing us for 30 years, with no end in sight. Meanwhile our infrastructure crumbles, and taxpayers pick up the tab for food stamps for the “job creators” at the top who refuse to pay their employees a living wage. This lesson remains unlearned.

THE PLEDGE seems to have begun on the fringes of NH politics in the 1950’s. In the seventies, under the stewardship of Governor Meldrim Thomson and Union Leader editor William Loeb, THE PLEDGE went mainstream. For over 40 years now, some of our elected officials pledge every two years that they promise that they will not support a state income tax or a sales tax. The Pledge is now seen as inevitable and necessary. It’s called The New Hampshire Advantage. As I’ve pointed out before, taking pledges is easier than thinking.

There’s a definite NH Advantage for the state’s 27,000 millionaires and the numerous military retirees who move to NH as a sort of tax shelter. For the rest of us, the advantage hasn’t been evident in some time. What the pledge really means, is that we will continue to raise insufficient revenue to fund our state at anything more than a bare minimum. Our infrastructure will continue to crumble, our state parks will continue to deteriorate, and we will continue to rank in last place in the nation when it comes to investing in our state university system. When this lesson is finally learned, it’s going to come at a very high price.

The lessons of the Gilded Age brought about the Progressive Era. We’re now watching the reforms of the Progressive Era erode. All of the positive gains through the 1970’s are disappearing faster than the polar ice cap.

Gorham learned that libraries are a great idea. They learned that dumping sewerage in the river was not such a great idea. In a 13-year period, Gorham went from applauding the dumping of sewage into the river to having 48 water closets. Progress through plumbing! It is possible for us to learn from our history and our mistakes, but we don’t seem to do it very often.

“I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: We’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”  Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

© 2014 sbruce
published as an op-ed in the Oct. 3, 2014 edition of the Conway Daily Sun newspaper. 


Anonymous said...

We're only doomed to repeat the past due to stubborn stupidity. I am unlike most others. I place no importance on that useless four letter word "hope". It's meaningless. Action is required. We have spiraled down to such a cavernous grotto of selfish ignorance, I fail to see how we can possible climb back up. Huge numbers of individuals would have to take action to remedy our dire situation. I don't see this happening. There has to be imbedded corruption on such a huge scale that all that is progressive, good and dynamic is continually and consistently trumped.

Anonymous said...

you can always pay more

Anonymous said...

We are paying more, we are paying for stagnant regressive behavior - duh.

Brian Loudermilch said...

History is whatever the Media and the textbook writers SAY it is.

The lessons that a real History would teach have been replaced by simplistic MYTHS designed to keep the Public from questioning the STATUS QUO.

Make Believe "History" = NO Learning.