With Good Intentions? Reflections on the Myth of Progress in America

With Good Intentions? Reflections on the Myth of Progress in America

With Good Intentions? Reflections on the Myth of Progress in America

With Good Intentions? Reflections on the Myth of Progress in America


Kauffman's perspective on progress in America--from the point of view of those who lost--revives forgotten figures and reinvigorates dormant causes as he examines the characters and arguments from six critical battles that forever altered the American landscape: the debates over child labor, school consolidation, women's suffrage, the back-to-the-land movement, "good roads" and the Interstate Highway System, and a standing army. The integration of these subjects and the presentation of the anti-Progress case as a coherent political tendency encompassing several issues and many years is unprecedented. With wit, passion, and an arsenal of long-neglected sources, Kauffman measures the cost of progress in 20th century America and exposes the elaborate plans behind seemingly "inevitable" reforms.


The western New York village of Le Roy--pronounced La-Roy, vaguely regal, by its residents; and Leee-Roy, as in Jordan or Selmon, by the rest of us--is a goldmine of nicknames. Its leafy streets have been populated by Pickle, Boomer, Weegie, and, my favorite, the late great "Eggs" Bacon.

But a fissure has developed. The Interstate Highway System, that human conveyor belt and model of government-subsidized mobility, opened a Le Roy exchange several years ago, and Rochester yuppies who didn't mind a half-hour commute could purchase their own little half-acres of quaintness. An unpalatable cleft resulted, and nowhere is this more evident than in the use of sobriquets. Old-time Le Royans (including several relatives of mine) still traffic in nicknames, but the newer folk, for the most part, do not. It's not that they don't want charming monikers hung 'round their necks; it's just that they haven't earned them. For most nicKnames attach themselves in childhood and are not portable: abandon the scene of your boyhood and bid farewell to Tiny Tim.

To acquire a nickname is easy; to maintain one is harder, as it requires continuous residence in one place. The Interstate has disrupted local patterns of commerce and life; in Le Roy, a small--but ultimately significant--casualty has been nicknames.

Even the harshest critics of modernity tend to regard such losses as unavoidable. Urbanization, the disappearance of rural "district" schools, the transfer of production from the home to the factory, the K-Mart/Wal- Mart vanquishment of locally owned shops, the intrusion of the state and its agents across the hearthstone, the militarization of American life and economy: these are occasionally lamented, but wistfully so, as with the passing of vivid autumn into gray winter. Whether progress is a matter of triste or treat, all concede its inevitability.

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