VOL. 132 | NO. 179 | Friday, September 8, 2017
What We’re Left With
LEGACIES OF IRONY. The guy who invented dynamite and various ways to blow people up also gave us the Nobel Peace Prize. According to Alfred Nobel’s will in 1896, the award is to go to someone who has “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
Boom goes the irony.
The guy who started Standard Oil, who is widely considered as the richest man in American history, inspired a biographer to say “that his good side was every bit as good as his bad side was bad. Seldom has history produced such a contradictory figure.”
John D. Rockefeller was the very embodiment of a ruthless monopolist and the inspiration for our anti-trust laws. While his power could only be curbed by the U.S. Supreme Court, his wealth founded and funded universities, and the medical research of his foundations eradicated horrors like hookworm and yellow fever.
Irony by the barrel.
I thought about those guys and others like them over ice cream in front of an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, next door to an old-fashioned five-and-dime, on an old-fashioned town square – all Disney-esque sleight of hand by the guy who put small stores and town squares out of business all across America.
Irony by the scoop.
I was in Bentonville, Arkansas, and Bentonville is made possible by the late Sam Walton and his eponymous and ubiquitous Walmart, steamrolling every competitor and strong-arming every supplier on his quest to bury mom-and-pop retailing alive under blacktopped acres out on the edge of every town.
But Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is in Bentonville, a masterpiece in and of itself, paid for by Walton family money. Even empty, it would be an inspiration executed in water, glass, wood, steel and stone – islands connected by imagination, folded into a forest like its hills and ravines and canopy, drawing its shapes, turns and discoveries from that. Full, it’s an American celebration of creative expression, of the individual spark in our collective soul.
Just as Walmart serves as the quintessential representative of our lowest common denominator, the museum Walmart has given America represents the best of who we’ve been and can aspire to be.
Irony as art.
Nobel wanted a legacy beyond explosive destruction. Without his remarkable philanthropy, Rockefeller would just be a remarkable dollar sign written in oil. Whether because of guilt or social conscience, responsibility or passion, religious conviction or more or less of all of those, however great personal wealth is acquired, great public benefit is sometimes left behind.
Then there’s Trump.
We can only wonder what the final legacy will be of someone so high who has already brought the standard of the presidency, of decency itself, to record lows in record time. Perhaps we know. The only legacy of he who would “make America great again” will be great shame.
I’m a Memphian, and the shame is America’s.
Dan Conaway, a communication strategist and author of “I’m a Memphian,” can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.