Roger Kennedy @ Long Now, 11-Feb-2005

Roger Kennedy was the speaker at this month’s Long Now talk.  Kennedy’s had a distinguished career, acting as Director of the National Park Service in the nineties, and as Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History from 1979-1992.  I’ll try to give a summary of what he had to say, which was given the title "The Political History of North America from 25,000BC to 2100AD."

He began by showing some slides indicating the sites of major North American civilization that were booming in the period around 1200-1400AD.  They were (1) at the conjunction of the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio rivers (2) at the bend of the Tennessee river and (3) along the Savannah river in Georgia.  We apparently know very little about the people who lived in these areas (Kennedy wrote a book called Hidden Cities that presumably discusses this and much more).  By the time white folks came into these areas, they were largely uninhabited, but mound remains were obvious.  However he felt it was obvious to the founding fathers that there had been past periods of activity, and that this somehow had a strong impact on the likes of Jefferson and Washington.  I’d like to find out more about this topic.

He then talked about the movements of Native Americans around the continent, and compared that to what’s happening now in America – the emptying of the plains.  Americans are moving to the south and west, areas that happen to be very prone to fire, particularly if temperatures were to rise a bit more. 

His main message was that there are cycles, periods of reform where great things can be achieved, and periods of lethargy.  Kennedy’s view of American history identifies these periods of reform: 1830s – a drive to stop the near pandemic of alcholism, 1860s – he felt it was ultimately about ending slavery, 1910s – progressive movement, 1940s – fighting fascism, 1960s – a new consciousness about the earth. His feeling was that the events of 9/11 had the additional unfortunate effect of short-circuiting a new period of reform.  His belief is that it is possible to use moral will in leadership to avoid impending disasters, but characterized the current leadership as "selfish" and "bigoted" (Kennedy is a lifelong Republican who would "like his party back").  All in all an optimistic view, and an inspiring talk.


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