The mariner was at the library the other day. While he was there, he checked out a copy of Jon Stewart’s biography written by Lisa Rogak, Angry Optimist, the Life and Times of Jon Stewart. St. Martin’s Press, 2014.
Jon was and is an eclectic mind driven by a desire to be good at something. He tried everything, including attending William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia, a student body where Jews were a significant minority – likely counted on one hand.
The book is entertaining and a light read. All that aside, what caught the mariner’s attention was that Jon followed the works of Eugene Debs when Jon was young. Eugene Debs! The mariner hasn’t thought of him in decades.
Eugene Debs was a labor union organizer in the earlier years of the twentieth century when the union movement was active. Debs was a union organizer extraordinaire; Readers may recall his organization of the American Railway Union and the Pullman strike of 1894 that shut down train traffic in most of the United States. President Cleveland had to call in the US Army to break the strike.
In today’s capitalist environment, Debs would not have been allowed a platform from which to marshal the nation’s labor force. Times were different as the twentieth century began, however, and Debs was the champion of union organizers.
The American culture was more open and diverse in those days. Debs ran for President five times as a Socialist Party Candidate.
The mariner’s mind was refreshed with an awareness of the upheaval of US culture during the turn of the century. It was a time similar to the time we have now. In Deb’s lifetime, the assembly line was invented, automobiles replaced horses, airplanes made it possible to hop from one city to another in one day, and unions had a new major role in the life of the working class.
The upheaval today is every bit as challenging. Robotics, electronics, computers, and a new global awareness test our understanding of who we are and what we stand for.
The last champion of comparable influence that changed standards against the will of government and business is Ralph Nader, who used public opinion to force the auto industry to significantly upgrade safety standards. It is interesting that changes in cultural ideas and practices cannot occur without a champion who launches the new idea. Without the Debs and Naders of the world, our culture would not take for granted workers’ rights and auto safety – an integral part of our life today.
In 2014, we have many inventors and innovative entrepreneurs. What we need is a champion to harness the culture of the 21st century.
It is true that reading enriches the mind. The mariner has a biography of Jon Stewart to thank for today’s pondering.