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Sidewalks with Tom Deignan
The Worst of Times?
September 18, 2008
Sidewalks by Tom Deignan
EDMUND Lynch was born in Baltimore, but relocated to New York City as generations of Irish American dreamers have been doing for roughly a century and a half. Lynch was shacking up at a YMCA on 23rd Street when he met a fellow named Charles Merrill. The year was 1907. Thus, from these humble beginnings, was born the New York financial giant Merrill Lynch.
This week? R.I.P Merrill Lynch.
The firm, facing bankruptcy, merged with Bank of America. Hey, at least they didn’t go belly up, like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns.
These events have led many observers to suggest we are headed for the worst of times since the Great Depression, or worse. This is understandable, particularly in the heat of a nasty presidential election when Americans are feeling so helpless that they are naturally going to look to Barack Obama and John McCain for answers.
What we are likely to get over the next two months is more and more exaggerations, distortions and nasty rhetoric.
(This is bad news for Ireland as well the U.S. After all, financial links between the two nations are so close that economists such as David McWilliams refer to the Emerald Isle as “the 51st State.”)
Either way, what can’t be denied is that while the financial meltdown is bad, it is also merely the latest bit of bad news — war, terrorism, rising food and gas prices, foreclosures, hurricanes. You can see why people might believe those four horsemen may soon be riding down from the great racetrack in the sky.
Which is probably what acclaimed novelist Dennis Lehane had in mind as he was working on his latest novel The Given Day, which hits bookstores next week. Lehane –- a son of Irish immigrants best known for Mystic River and Gone, Baby Gone -– has upped the ante with his latest book. It is 700 pages long and a historical epic, set in Boston at the end of World War I, as an Irish cop struggles to adjust to the changing times.
As you read The Given Day, you realize it is about a time when America was fighting an unpopular war abroad. At home, the cities were filled with immigrants, many of them angry terrorists who were bent on blowing up buildings.
And get this? The Great Depression was looming 10 years away.
The point of all this is probably to make the reader think, hey, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Lehane, after all, is a well known critic of George W. Bush, and in the era he wrote about in his new book, he probably saw a scary parallel to present day America.
But the late 1910s were awful for many other reasons. The state of public health was atrocious, as Lehane notes by exploring the infamous “Spanish flu” epidemic of 1918, which left millions of Americans dead. Our tainted tomatoes and spinach are bad these days, but not that bad.
Meanwhile, racial violence against African Americans was more or less openly encouraged, as we see clearly in one of Lehane’s characters. Even anti-Catholicism remained a fact of life, as Lehane illustrates when a chilly WASP takes control of Massachusetts politics.
Again, to deny the persistence of racism is silly, but Obama has yet to face, say, burning crosses on the campaign trail, as Irish Catholic candidate Al Smith did in 1928.
The labor situation was also appalling, as we see in Lehane’s depiction of the strikes that crippled the U.S. from Seattle to Boston. In fact, The Given Day culminates in the infamous Boston police strike, which was, not surprisingly, dominated by Irish police officers.
This is not to say that things are really great today. But there is such a great temptation to believe our current conditions are unprecedented, and that our ancestors somehow avoided wrestling with similar problems.
They managed. We will as well.
Imagine Edmund Lynch, who’d weathered the worst of the Great Depression, brought back to life and taking a stroll through midtown Manhattan today.
He might say, “Boy, they don’t make financial crises like they used to.”
(Contact Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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