You may recall that the song Les Tacy just played, “The Entertainer” was the title piece to the 1981 movie “Ragtime.” It was based on a novel, with the same name, by E.L. Doctorow. The movie and book were named after the musical genre that was popular during the first two decades of the 1900’s.
The Ragtime story focuses on a wealthy New York family who are not named. They are simply “Father, Mother, Mother’s Younger Brother, and little boy.”
Father earns his wealth owning a fireworks and flag factory. Like many rich men of the time, he has lots of idle time and gets bored. So he joins the first expedition to the North Pole.
While he is gone for many months, Mother experiences independence for the first time. She becomes a suffragette and advocate for women’s rights. After finding an abandoned African-American baby, Mother adopts the child. The child’s mother Sarah eventually finds her way to the house and Mother rescues her too. Later still, the baby’s father, Coalhouse Walker, begins to live in Mother’s house. Coalhouse is an accomplished pianist who earns a living playing ragtime music in fancy New York nightclubs.
Mother’s younger Brother is an expert in explosives and fireworks. He manages the family business. He too becomes bored and begins an affair with Evelyn Nesibit, who was a real life American chorus girl with a salacious reputation.
Miss Nesbit meanwhile takes an immigrant single father named Tateh under her protective wings. He is an accomplished artist who supports himself by working in a large factory. He is caught up in a worker’s strike, meets the real life progressive activist Emma Goldman, and becomes a socialist. Tateh realizes the promise of supposed American equal opportunity – is a myth.
Coalhouse Walker gets caught in the major drama of the story. While driving to work in his Model T Ford, he is stopped and humiliated by a racist fire crew and its Chief Conklin. They demand a huge sum of money to allow him to proceed. They are upset a black man owns a car. Coalhouse refuses to pay and the fire crew then dumps human excrement into the car and finally burn it.
Coalhouse pursues legal action against the fire chief in an attempt to get his car and, more importantly, his dignity back. His efforts are blocked by a legal system that is prejudiced against African-Americans.
Coalhouse then begins vigilante attacks on New York firehouses. He threatens to continue them until his car is restored and Chief Conklin is punished. He escalates his attacks by recruiting other disaffected blacks and whites to join him. Younger Brother is one of them who, with his expertise in explosives, helps Coalhouse build bombs. The gang takes over, and threatens to explode, the famous J.P. Morgan Library with its valuable collection of books and art. The real life Booker T. Washington negotiates punishment for Chief Conklin in return for the safe escape of Coalhouse’s volunteers. When Coalhouse surrenders after his men are safe, he is shot and killed by police.
Into these interwoven story lines, Father returns from his adventure. He’s shocked to find profound changes in his family. Mother is now a feminist who adopted a black child, its mother and it’s outlaw father. The manager of his factory, Younger Brother, is not only having an affair with the scandalous Evelyn Nesbit, he has also joined Coalhouse as a bomber.
Father is deeply shaken by these changes. In despair and to flee from changes he cannot understand, Father embarks on the ship Lusitania headed to Europe. He dies when the ship, as students of history know, is sunk by German U-Boats. After his death, Mother meets, falls in love with, and marries Tateh, the immigrant father. The story ends as Mother and Tateh settle down to raise their three very diverse children. Mother and Father are thus symbols of change in America and how to deal with it. Fight against it and sit on the wrong side of history, or embrace it and find peace.
The novel Ragtime has been acclaimed by numerous critics as one of the hundred best books of the twentieth century. Importantly, the book’s themes highlight the profound changes in the lives of Mother and Father AND those in the United States and world. Human culture, economies and social structures were all upended by industrialization.
The Industrial era, most historians agree, spanned from the 1850’s to the conclusion of World War Two. It was followed by the post-Industrial era lasting until approximately the 1990’s. After that, began the period in which we now find ourselves – that of the Digital Age with its own major economic and social changes.
The Industrial era, however, reached its inflection point during the first decades of the 1900’s – precisely when ragtime music was most popular. Industrialization created massive dislocations in society. Cities grew to be very large as people moved from rural areas to work in newly built factories. Those factories needed lots of cheap labor to run their machines. That encouraged the immigration of millions of poor farmers from most of Europe.
Factories needed huge amounts of coal and oil to fuel their machines. That created opportunities for a few businessmen to build large monopolies like Standard Oil, New York Central Railroad, and US Steel. Great wealth became concentrated in the hands of a few. An educated, managerial class of professionals was needed to run the factories and large businesses. They became a new middle class. Those who worked in the factories, coal mines and steel mills – the uneducated rural poor, immigrants, women and children – they were the new lower class. They worked long hours, toiled in unsafe conditions and were paid minimal wages.
I relate the Ragtime novel’s story, and the history of Industrialization, as my introduction to a larger point. Economic, technological and social change can be shocking and disruptive, but they have happened throughout human history. I assert that societies and people must learn to adapt to change, and help minimize its worst effects.
As a symbol of the early twentieth century and its many changes, ragtime music is one of America’s contributions to the world. As a musical genre, it was known for unique syncopation and upbeat energy. Melodic accents and harmonic sounds come between major beats in the music. A pianists left hand plays the beat while the right hand plays the syncopated, rhythmic melody. This “ragged” sound gave the music its name.
It was a radically new musical genre that many say was a modern update to Mozart’s minuets and Brahms’ waltzes. It influenced later classical music – that of of 20th century composers like Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky. It’s no coincidence that the music is a symbol for change. People around the world reacted to industrialization changes in multiple ways. The Russian Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was one reaction. Colonialism and rampant greed in Europe was another – one that led to World War One as nations competed against each other for control of natural resources.
In the US, progressives like Teddy Roosevelt enacted their own solutions to industrialization and its negative changes. Labor unions, the right to strike, child labor laws and minimum wages were their solutions. Added to those, constitutional rights of free speech and the right to assemble helped American women create positive change for themselves – by gaining the right to vote in 1920. American institutions of democracy and built-in checks on forces of power helped this nation deal with the profound changes.
It goes without saying that we are today witnessing cultural, economic and social upheavals similar to those caused by the Industrial revolution. Today’s changes, however, have been caused by the so-called Digital Revolution in what many sociologists believe is the single fastest and most profound economic shift in history. People of every nation are struggling with how to answer such change. Do we embrace current dislocations and innovations – those of globalization, immigration, the demand for minority rights, and new technology in the form of computers? Or, do we react like Father in the Ragtime story – with disbelief, shock, anger and retreat? In other words, is the answer to widespread economic, social and technological change one that accepts change and tries to soften its blows? Something we call progressivism? Or is the answer to deny change, retreat to the past, and embrace a conservative response emblematic of that name – to conserve what was once had?
Regardless of political reasons why it is essential to accept change, I believe it is a spiritual one as well. Ragtime music and Ragtime the story both implicitly endorse that. Ragtime music was, and is popular because of its radical newness in sound – one that is almost robotic. Scott Joplin, ragtime’s foremost composer, said it was intentionally written to mimic piano music rolls – what were an early prototype of digital computer cards. It’s acceptance and popularity helped spawn ragtime’s musical offspring- jazz, R&B, and rock and roll. In other words, much like industrialization and the changes it caused were eventually blended into a new economic and social culture, so too was ragtime.
Change, as a basic fact of life, is thus not something we can ignore. All around us, change happens constantly. All forms of life mature, grow old and eventually die – consistent with the fact that nothing in the universe stays the same. Physical laws of entropy and thermodynamics confirm this. Since change is a fundamental law of existence, then it holds true for human society as well. To ignore or fight against change is a Don Quixote like effort – useless.
Spiritually, change is also a fact of life. All religions have used change to encourage new ways to understand life and the universe. Judaism began as a way to change human behavior through religious rules of morality. Jesus radically changed that idea by saying rules of behavior have merit, but values of compassion and equality supersede them. The Buddha and Mohammad taught the same. Virtually all forms of spirituality were and are change reactions intended to further human decency.
Progressivism in the early 20th century, symbolized by ragtime music, was also a way to initiate positive change in human behavior. And so it is today. A common definition of progressivism, however, says nothing about politics. Instead, progressivism is defined as “a philosophy based on the idea of Progress, which asserts that advancements in science, technology, economic development, and social organization are vital to the improvement of the human condition.” Underlying that definition is the spiritual notion that our purpose for living is to improve the condition of all humanity such that the world becomes a better and more humane place.
When I say GNH is spiritually progressive, I mean the same – that we embrace change as a means to improve ourselves and the world. In fact, we are each called to be change agents – people who work to change themselves so that they can then work to change the world.
But humans being human often reject change out of fear. The act of becoming something different is not easy, physically or mentally. With change, we move into unknown territory, where life is unfamiliar and seemingly unsafe.
Church congregations, for instance, are notoriously averse to change. Both myself, and some of you, are not immune to that response. We like our traditions – our rituals, hymns, committees, and policies we’ve used for many years. Adopting new ideas for how we worship, sing or govern ourselves – such things are scary. I still lament that some of the former Gathering members, who chose not to continue with the merged congregation, did so because they did not want to change. A new congregation, in a new location, with some new practices, those were unsettling.
Certain segments in our nation are reacting strongly to the social and economic change they see. Attitudes against LGBT rights, globalization, immigration, Black Lives Matter, global warming, and new forms of technology have manifested themselves in a conservative response. Such people say, “Let’s ignore these sweeping forces for change. Let’s stay the same or retreat backwards. Let’s refuse to educate ourselves and evolve.”
But as much as it is easy to wag our finger at others who resist change, we must look within ourselves and how we also resist change. I resist change in my life – that I’m getting older, that I am having new health problems, that the patterns of my life and work evolve, that forms of social media like Facebook or Twitter can be useful. At times I can sound like a grumpy old man who sits on his porch and yells at kids in the street who make too much noise! Take a chill pill Doug and move with the onward flow of progress!
I therefore try to encourage evolutionary change here and in myself by allowing things to move forward gradually. I believe a progressive attitude in politics, spirituality, economics and society can help us change in ways that is balanced. Progressivism is neither revolutionary nor ultra-conservative. It accepts change but it also tries to manage it in ways that are compassionate to those hurt by it. Progressivism echoes Martin Luther King’s belief that the arc of moral history is a long one, with many temporary backward steps, but it always bends toward justice.
With that hopeful thought, my encouragement for us is to listen to the implied message of ragtime music. Change is a universal fact. It is a force for good. Change in us, in life, in human institutions, or in technology may be frightening, but it will ultimately be for good if we take time to adapt. We can act like angry white men in any area of change – with technology, at church, with our jobs, families, health, foods, sexualities, and lifestyles – or we can act like Mother in the Ragtime story – an open minded, compassionate woman who heard the new syncopated call of ‘The Entertainer’ and boldly moved into a better future.