Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Scrapping a Metaphor

On several occasions on this particular blog site, I have referred to my connections with good friends as ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ moments. The metaphor was meant to conjure the warm, happy family/community life depicted in that 1944 movie starring Judy Garland.

Recently commissioned to create a Labor Day Sunday service for my congregation, I launched intensive research into life in this country between the time the first national Labor Day was established, in 1894, and the creation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (circa 1940).

I no longer believe that the film was/is an accurate depiction of American life in 1904. Or at least it was/is not a comprehensive depiction. In 1904, the vast majority of Americans were, if they had jobs, dealing with low wages, dangerous working environments and deplorable living conditions. Children were working in factories, fields, mines, and on the streets. Women’s roles were constricted. Blacks and Native Americans were considered sub-human. … Among other social ills.

And the St. Louis World’s Fair, so ballyhooed in the movie, reflected our society at that time. The most blatant example was the fair’s “ethnology exhibit”. Geronimo, the former Apache war chief was on display in a teepee in that exhibit which also showcased Pygmies, as examples of ‘primitive’ and ‘inferior’ people. One of the Pygmies was later featured in a human exhibit in the Bronx Zoo.

The U.S. government staged a “Philippine Exposition” on 47 acres that included several small ‘villages’ housing various Filipino tribal peoples. Groups of these natives were arranged to demonstrate their degrees of ‘civilization’. One of objectives of these exhibits was to justify our country’s ‘annexation’ of the Philippines as a result of the Spanish-American War. The government hoped to show how the United States would improve the lot of all Filipinos by ‘sharing’ its culture, values, and political and economic systems.

I have a problem with all of this. I understand that judging social circumstances more than 100 years later is a bit unfair. I understand that “Meet Me in St. Louis” was probably an accurate depiction of a small segment of our society.

Still, I’m not going to use that metaphor again.

Even though I still like the movie.

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