20th Century American Culture Progressive Era Research Paper

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Attitudes Towards Work in Progressive America

The Progressive Age in the United States was a time of redefinition in American thought and politics. During a time of global restructuring in which European imperialism was entering the first phase of its death throes, American imperialism was beginning to rise. This imperialism took a different form, at least outwardly, from that which typified the preceding centuries. Instead of colonies with rigidly enforced governments imposed by the colonizers, American imperialism ostensibly had the will and desire to spread democracy and self-rule at its heart.

This new kind of imperialism was a direct outgrowth of Progressive-era thought. Perhaps most notable among the figures who made the connection from Progressive philosophies to advocacies of certain international actions was President and former Rough Rider Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, whose speech entitled "The Strenuous Life" attempts to draw a comparison between the success that labor and active involvement brings to an individual and the same cause and effect relationship in nations. According to Roosevelt's argument, the United States needed to become and remain heavily involved in world affairs if it wished to remain viable and necessary as a country. Without such action, Roosevelt claims, the nation would be useless, and would eventually wither away in the face of other more active countries.

Many thinkers during the Progressive Era disagreed with this view of Roosevelt's and on many different grounds. One such man was Randolph Bourne, whose essay "The Experimental Life" seems in many ways to be a direct refutation of several of the points Roosevelt makes in his speech. He does not directly concern himself with the moral or ethical justice of one country's involvement in another's affairs, but instead focuses on the validity of Roosevelt's claims about life and work. Bourne is all too familiar with Roosevelt's line of thinking; the idea that hard work automatically leads to success had long been the American Dream (and still is), and Horatio Alger's novels written just prior to this period had carried this concept to ridiculous new heights. For Bourne, the fallacy of this American Dream was hugely apparent. He also thought it to be counterproductive and demoralizing, as the disappointment it creates in the younger generation that, according to Bourne, easily identifies the impossibility of such a philosophy's claims leads directly to an opposite effect of increased inaction.

Instead of perpetuating the false notion of the American Dream, Bourne advocates an approach to life that is -- as his title suggests -- more experimental, and less tied to the "rationalism" that leads to the American Dream mentality. Likewise, instead of deciding beforehand what causes and effects are likely to occur -- which is an impossibility in life, Bourne contends -- Bourne believes that options should be left open and pre-conceived notions about the full effects of our actions are dismissed as being specious and inaccurate. Bourne's ideas can be seen in large measure as a reaction to the prevailing modes of Progressive thought as exemplified by Roosevelt, but were also revolutionary in their own right. Certainly, there are positive and negative aspects of both innovations, and a comparison of these two men's Progressive ideals reveals much about the changing nature of American culture at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Roosevelt's "The Strenuous Life" is strongly influenced by the theory known as social Darwinism. According to this theory, society works via similar methods to what Darwin proposed for biological evolution -- the mechanism known as natural selection, or "survival of the fittest." Using the Civil War as an example, Roosevelt comments that "we [the United States of America] could have avoided all this suffering simply by shrinking from strife. And if we had thus avoided it, we would have shown that we were weaklings, and that we were unfit to stand among the great nations of the earth" (Roosevelt, par. 4). According to his thinking, strength must be shown through action, and any inaction should be considered a weakness. He first makes his point not in talking about nations, however, but with people, praising his audience for their hard work and outlining his hope that they instill the same virtues of hard work in their children, because "a life of that peace which springs merely from lack either of desire or of power to strive after great things, is as little worthy of a nation as of an individual" (Roosevelt, par. 2).

Certainly, Roosevelt has a valid point -- peace that is the mere result of a lack of desire to face strife is not productive. Almost by definition, progress cannot come from complacency. Yet his logic is also self-defeating to a large extent; had the South not seceded and caused the Civil War, or had the North acted more prudently in the years leading up to the war, the conflict could have been avoided altogether, and the same progress made with less suffering and at less cost to the nation. Bourne does not even need to resort to arguing the finer points of nineteenth century American history in order to dismiss the claims Roosevelt made in this speech, however. Though he does not address Roosevelt or the ideas put forth in this speech directly, he quickly finds fault in the underlying logic of "The Strenuous Life." First and foremost, Bourne takes exception to the application of logical rules such as cause and effect to such complex circumstances as arise during life: "rationality implies an almost superstitious reliance on logical proofs and logical motives, and it is logic that life mocks and contradicts at every turn" (Bourne, par. 1). He continues to say that "it would pleasant to live in a world where cause and effect interlocked," but for Bourne it is plain to see that this is simply not true -- though he doesn't full explain himself (Bourne, par. 1).

His clarity increases, however, when he begins discussing the general details of a successful life -- he does not claim that success does not follow hard work, but he does claim -- rather convincingly, if still without proof -- is that the pinnacle of success is never the plan during the time of hard work; it is only after events have happened that man is able to go back and impose an order on them. In reality, Bourne claims, things often happen contrary to our intentions, and if "our strategy, unless it is open to instant correction, unless it is flexible, and capable of infinite resources and modification, is a handicap rather than an aid in the battle of life" (Bourne, par. 2). Contrary to Roosevelt's endorsement of a life of action almost without deliberation, Bourne proffers the ironically more logical lifestyle of seeing what happens and acting in accordance to it. He suggests that we should test everything for ourselves, and never fully trust any of our conclusions. He does not suggest that inaction is preferable, but rather that all actions should be conducted with prudence and careful examination.

Roosevelt specifically advocates militancy on an international scale as a way of dealing with the world, and effectively claims that failing to act with force in various global arenas would lead to the United States' eventual demise. His tone is absolutely unequivocal on this point: "we cannot sit huddled within our own borders and avow ourselves merely an assemblage of well-to-do hucksters who care nothing for what happens beyond...we must build up our power without our own borders" (Roosevelt, par. 6). Global intervention, for Roosevelt, is a prerequisite for sustained power, and he sees absolutely no alternative option offered by history. Applying Bourne's thesis to the situation might yield different results, however.

Bourne claims that "we do not hear enough of the tragedies of misplaced ambition...his humiliation, too, is in proportion to the strength of his will"…

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