Humorist Mark Twain was among the first to call the years bookmarking the turn of the 19th century the "Gilded Age." Struck by the results of rapid industrialization, rampant greed, political corruption and the growing divide between the Haves and Have-Nots, Twain drew attention to America's growing social issues by writing revealing satires about a society whose problems spelled trouble for most people. Novelists Henry James and Edith Wharton painted literary pictures of what it was like to be of, or outside, the wealthy class, much as Dickens had, or Downton Abbey does visually today.
During that Gilded Age, "robber barons" with deep pockets dined on delectables, accompanied by women with feathers and fans complimenting their fabulous gowns. They wintered in Manhattan mansions and fled to Newport "cottages" during the hot summer months while the one percent of their day subsisted in shared flats, scraping by, often on leftovers and hand-me-downs from those they served.
In today's Gilded Age, Wall Street bankers dress down for dinner, their women in Gucci, Pucci and Louis Vuitton casual-wear. They live on Fifth Avenue as the barons did, or in rehabbed Brooklyn brownstones perhaps, and keep beachside condos in Boca Raton and Belize.
To paraphrase a popular Thai expression, "Same same but [not all that] different."
Harvard professor Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone, draws important comparisons between the first Gilded Age and ours. "Americans at the end of the nineteenth century were divided by class, ethnicity, and race, much as we are today," he writes, and "social observers " were concerned with how to intertwine new technology with face-to-face ties." Morality was eroding, communities were fracturing, and social Darwinism -- economic survival of the fittest - was part of the dominant ideology, he explains.
Enter the Progressive Era launched by left-leaning journalists like Jacob Riis, social activists like Ida Tarbell and Jane Addams, and authors like Upton Sinclair, who exposed urban squalor, government corruption, exploitation of immigrants, and the evils of big business and "banks too big to fail."
As the 20th century moved into its second decade, progressives increasingly yearned for a return to small town values, Putnam suggests, including connection and caring for neighbors in need. They remembered the Mom and Pop shops that had been displaced by Sears Roebuck and the A&P. They also decried "cheap entertainment" because it added to the decline of civic engagement.
Other great progressive thinkers had weighed in on the problems of a Gilded Age long before Putnam drew parallels to our own time. Victorian reformer Benjamin Disraeli, for example, wrote this in 1845: "In great cities men are brought together by the desire of gain. They are not in a state of co-operation, but of isolation, as to the making of fortunes and for all the rest they are careless neighbors."
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