Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The more things change...

I've been listening to Bill Bryson's Home, a Social History of Private Life for a while now, and just finished it yesterday.  I love Bill Bryson.  I first discovered him when Notes from a Big Country (known in the US as I'm a Stranger Here Myself) was recommended to me.  It's a collection of his newspaper columns from the first few years after he moved back to the US after spending 20 years in the UK.  I had only been in the UK for two years, but I already identified with much of his wonder and curiosity of life in the US.  The first time I walked into a Wal-Mart when I got back to the US, for example, is a time I will never forget.  I was blown away.  Why do they need three aisles for cereal and granola bars?  At my local Tesco Metro, there's like 6 kinds to choose from, and that was plenty for me.  Capitalism run amok, say I.

Anyway, my old buddy Bill Bryson is currently living back in the UK, and writing more interesting books than ever.  Home is a journey through each of the rooms of his house, where he manages to expound upon things such as why we have salt and pepper shakers, and not salt and cinnamon.  Or is it true that the Victorians, as they like to claim, really invented childhood?  And what about paint.  What's the deal with our desire to paint walls, and how did we do it before modern technology?  And when did we start putting ice in our drinks, anyway?

Bill Bryson is perfect for my ADD-ness because any time I start to get even slightly bored with a topic, we're on to another one, lickety-split.

So the final chapter was about archeology and how people have cared for their historical monuments throughout history.  It turns out, we haven't cared for them very well at all.  In fact, Stonehenge was very nearly impaled by a railroad track, it being decided to be "useless in the modern day."  During the agricultural failure of the 1870's when English crops failed miserably several years in a row, almost 2,000 historical stately homes were literally taken apart, board by board, and shipped to wealthy Americans like the Vanderbilt's, Mellon's and Astor's.  Stonehenge - seemingly always in danger - was almost shipped to the US to be part of a theme park!

I think that's pretty much of a travesty.

But here's a gem.  Finally around the mid-19th-century many English nobility were starting to realize that they should care about their historical treasures.  And, you know, maybe make them public owned.

The landowners did not like this.  It was government takeover of private land!  How dare the government tell people what to do with their land, whether there was something of national interest on their land or not. What about property rights?!  Of course, the term Socialism didn't have the same sting then that it does today, but I can imagine that if that were proposed today, the proponents would be getting the S-bomb dropped all over them.

The Ancient Monuments Protection Act was finally passed through Parliament in 1882, and it provided for an Inspector of Ancient Monuments who would identify items of historical interest and give them government protection, attempting to take them into public lands.  It was slow going at first - the first Inspector General - Augustus Pitt Rivers - served from 1882 until his death in 1900, and identified only around 40 monuments that should be protected - barely 2 a year.  Now there are over 19,000 items on the register.

This is why I like Jon Stewart and the growing movement of reasonableness amongst people (like me) who are disgusted with the Tea Party Fascists.  I think that we can all agree that Stonehenge should not have a railway running through it.  So that leads me to believe that everyone could agree that there are at least some pieces of private land, or private property rights, that should be taken into public custody for the good of society at large.  So then we can have a civilized discussion of what makes something worthy of being taken into public custody, and come to some reasonable consensus.  We won't get there, though, with Tea Party Nutso's wanting to do away with government completely.

It just makes me laugh when I hear about people freaking out over the loss of rights 130 years ago.  This discussion is not new.  I'm sure the Romans had similar discussions about what belonged in the public arena, and what should stay private.  There are some things that benefit all society - like roads, infrastructure, libraries, education, defense - which we seem to have agreed on should not be largely in private ownership where profits and shareholders are the number one concern.  There are some areas where profits need to be set aside for a greater good for society.  I contend that health care is one of those areas as well, though I know many disagree with me.  The point is that once we can agree that there are some things that shouldn't be profit-driven, we can sit down and hammer out the details.

But you can't do that if you're just calling everything Socialist all the time.

Still, it's nice to see that those 19,000 monuments are protected, regardless of the freakouts of the landed nobility.  Things move forward towards the greater good, and eventually we will have national healthcare, despite all the fear-mongering-death-paneling of the Tea Party.  It's just a shame for the 2,000 stately homes that the UK didn't protect them sooner.

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