The Sunday Times: America may fret over its shrinking middle class but the dream is intact

Photo: Luis Llerena

Photo: Luis Llerena

First, some history. In 1883, during the middle of the Gilded Age, Alva Vanderbilt decided to force her way into the elite sector of New York society known as “Mrs Astor’s Four Hundred”.

For years, Mrs Astor had maintained her own list of acceptable blue bloods. “Old money”, a relative term compared with Europe, counted; “new money” did not. Unfortunately for Alva, the Vanderbilt family wealth — which topped $1bn (£616m) in today’s money — was considered new money.

It was perhaps not surprising that Mrs Astor fought so hard to maintain the tribal identity of New York high society. The Gilded Age was an era of sudden prosperity (the economy grew by 400% between 1860 and 1900) and gross income disparities. According to best estimates, by 1905 the top 1% held more than 50% of the country’s wealth. Yet it was also an era of unprecedented social mobility.

Alva Vanderbilt understood that the issue at stake was class versus caste. Armed with that insight, she built the showiest mansion on Park Avenue, planned history’s most expensive costume ball (costing $250,000 when the average income was $380 a year), and invited every smart person in New York — except for Mrs Astor and her daughter Carrie, then in the middle of her debutante season.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Women Who Led the Fight for Independence

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

In years to come, the 2014 Scottish independence campaign is likely to be remembered for its overflowing testosterone. In this case, it was men brandishing their microphones. The campaign leaders, the debaters, the pollsters, even the egg-throwers were predominantly male. Women’s voices seemed to form a polite backdrop, as though the entire country had suffered a fit of 19th-century female gentility—except for the fact that actual 19th-century women were hardly shy about firing a rifle for independence.

The 1820s and ’30s in particular were a vintage time for the female independentista. Across the globe, from the Spanish-American Wars of Independence to the Greek Revolution to the November Uprising in the Polish-Russian War, women became spies, nurses, soldiers, couriers, sutlers, propagandists and even unofficial bankers. Some lived to tell the tale; some didn’t.

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The Sunday Times: Here’s the first crack in the shield around America’s bad teachers

Photo: Redd Angelo

Photo: Redd Angelo

A nightmare scenario is unfolding for the Californian parents of 12-year-old Jane Smith. Their child has been in a car accident and lies unconscious in A&E. The doctors say that Jane is bleeding internally — only an immediate operation will save her life.

Unfortunately it’s a Wednesday. That’s the day the surgeon on call is Dr Jones, aka Dr Death. He has killed every patient under his care for the past 10 years. The hospital would give anything to be rid of him. But Jones has tenure and that means he’s untouchable. In the past 10 years only 0.0007% of Californian surgeons have been sacked for incompetence. Bad luck to the Smiths; little Jane picked the wrong day to need surgery.

As far as I know, this scenario has never happened. American doctors simply aren’t that powerful. But until three months ago its teachers were. The dismissal rate of 0.0007% is a genuine statistic. That is to say, over the past decade just 19 incompetent teachers in California have been sacked out of a workforce of almost 300,000.

It’s no secret as to why: teachers in the state receive tenure after a mere 18 months. From then on, union regulations ensure that it takes years of hearings and can cost more than $1m (£610,000) to remove a single teacher.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Pandemics Over the Centuries

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

As the Ebola virus ravages the west coast of Africa, scientists in Canada have reported promising new signs in the search for a cure. This could be a major step toward beating the dreaded disease. But the first such breakthrough was discovering that Ebola is spread through bats native to West Africa.

Throughout the history of pandemics, figuring out how a disease spreads has been key to controlling it. Without such knowledge, a population has scant means of defending itself.

In 1615, a French trading ship was wrecked off the coast of Massachusetts. One of the four survivors was carrying smallpox and passed it on to the Wampanoag Tribe. Time-honored Native American cures, such as sweating or bundling the sufferer, only helped spread the virus. Within 20 years, some nine-tenths of the New England tribes had disappeared.

In the 19th century, another deadly threat arrived from Europe: cholera. The U.S. had escaped the first eruption of the disease in 1817. But thanks to modern travel, the second eruption in 1829 became a trans-Atlantic pandemic. It started in India, then moved along the trade routes into Europe and China.

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The Sunday Times: Legal thuggery and rule by fine print batter America’s body politic

Photo: Cole Patrick

Photo: Cole Patrick

This year I have been away from home a great deal working on a documentary series that will complement my forthcoming book on the history of women. The experience has been an eye-opener in many ways.

The past month, for example, has been spent in countries that don’t entirely share the BBC’s position on the bribing of public officials, or the European Union’s love of health and safety, or America’s belief in equality for all. What I witnessed made me feel lucky to be living in New York.

The airport may be a sorry dump but the rest of the city still sizzles with energy and optimism. Yet for the first time I have arrived back with a sense of foreboding.

Contrary to popular belief, democracies are not more robust than their totalitarian counterparts. It is in fact relatively easy to subvert a democratic institution from the inside, rotting the core while leaving the facade intact. Turkey, for instance, that beacon of Middle Eastern democracy, has the highest number of detained journalists in the world.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Anthems Sung in a Patriotic Key

Photo: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

The burning of the White House on Aug. 24, 1814, by British troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Robert Ross isn’t an obvious candidate for national celebration. But the event, distressing as it was at the time, did have one silver lining. The amateur poet Francis Scott Key was so relieved that Baltimore’s Fort McHenry escaped a similar fate a few days later that he wrote a poem about it, entitled “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” In 1931, 117 years after the streaming red glare had revealed that the U.S. flag was still there, Key’s poem—renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner”—was officially designated the U.S. national anthem.

Admittedly, the anthem is a challenge to sing. Moreover, practically everyone outside the U.S. mistakenly assumes that the song refers to a battle during the War of Independence, not during the War of 1812. The long version also has an embarrassing tirade against the British (“Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution”), but apart from these hiccups, “The Star-Spangled Banner” stands head and shoulders above most of the other 200 or so national anthems in existence today. For one thing, it is jolly and optimistic—sentiments often in short supply among the rest.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: A Century of Russian-Run Traitors

Photo: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

August marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, when the Austro-Hungarian army shelled Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, in retaliation for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists.

What the Austrians did not know at the time was that their war campaign had been fatally compromised. Their own head of counterintelligence, Col. Alfred Redl, had been selling the Russians information about the intelligence networks in the U.S. and Europe. Worse, he had given them all of Austria’s military secrets, including the attack plan against Serbia. Nor did the Austrians realize, until it was too late, that Col. Redl had been feeding his own side a diet of false information about the size and strength of the Russian Army.

Redl’s actions contributed to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Austrians. But he was not around to witness his handiwork. After his surprise exposure in 1913, his superiors allowed him to commit suicide rather than face arrest—a piece of supreme folly that left the Austrians completely in the dark about the full extent of his betrayal.

 

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The Sunday Times: Marshmallows and a toasting fork: the insignia of high office

Photo: Jeremy Ricketts

Photo: Jeremy Ricketts

August 1963. Little Stevie Wonder (as he was then) had the No 1 spot on the US Billboard Top Tunes chart with his song Fingertips Part II. The second spot belonged to Allan Sherman, a singer-songwriter who remains almost unknown outside America.

Sherman was an enormously talented parodist who rose to fame on the back of his first album, My Son, the Folk Singer, a collection of humorous songs about Jewish life in America.

It was his 1963 hit Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh that made Sherman a national hero. Americans from all walks of life could relate to his song about a boy’s first experience of summer camp. Set to the melody of Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, it begins:

Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh

Here I am at Camp Granada;

Camp is very entertaining,

And they say we’ll have

some fun if it stops raining.

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The Sunday Times: Feckless, spoilt, lazy . . . now where did our millennials learn that?

Photo: Jan Vašek

Photo: Jan Vašek

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most narcissistic, entitled and lazy of them all? In America there’s no contest: it’s the Millennial Generation — those 18 to 35-year-olds who text instead of talk, who have a shorter concentration span than my dog Max, who believe that rules are just guidelines and who know beyond all doubt that they are unique and special human beings.

Millennials certainly get blamed for a great deal: for taking up space in their parents’ basement, for turning up late (again) and for thinking that a hoodie is appropriate work attire. A YouTube spoof, “Millennials in the workplace training video”, advises managers that millennials require heaps of meaningless praise to put in the bare minimum effort.

They also need plenty of “me time”, which can’t be counted towards the regulation two-week annual holiday. The trainer ends with the line: “It’s your civic duty to employ them. Trust us, we want to fire them all, too. But we can’t.”

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WSJ Historically Speaking: A Brief History of Media Muckraking

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Forty years ago this week, the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach President Richard Nixon. Never comfortable with the media, Nixon made no attempt to hide his true feelings about reporters (especially Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post) or where he thought the blame belonged for his downfall: “It’s the responsibility of the media to look at the president with a microscope, but they go too far when they use a proctoscope.”

Many U.S. presidents have shared Nixon’s exasperation with the press. Theodore Roosevelt coined the term “muckraker” during a speech in 1906. He compared investigative reporters to the narrow-minded figure in John Bunyan’s 17th-century religious fable, “The Pilgrim’s Progress”: the “man that could look no way but downwards, with a muckrake in his hand.”

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