Father’s Day: A Brief History

Contrary to popular belief, Father’s Day was not created by an international tie and socks conspiracy.  I’ll grant you, retail advertising had a lot to do with keeping the day going during the lean years, but it’s still a standalone holiday.  It has all the rights and privileges afforded any other “It’s a holiday, but you can’t take the day off work” day, just like St. Valentine’s or St. Patrick’s.  The only difference is that, because it’s dad, it gets shuffled along to the last minute.  Somewhere around mid-morning on the third Saturday in June, getting creative is no longer an option, so most people just head for the haberdasher.  Dads really don’t mind, though; they figure they’re lucky to have a day at all.

To keep the family metaphor going, Father’s Day has always been the poor cousin of Mother’s Day.  Mother’s Day was founded first, in 1908, and it was an instant hit.  Between the newly-minted Hallmark Cards (Hall Brothers, at that time) and the flower power of the florist industry, Mother’s Day went 20th century viral almost immediately.  In fact, Mother’s Day became so commercially successful that its founder, Anna Jarvis, disowned the holiday she had created and was once even arrested for demonstrating against it.  Father’s Day never had it so good.

There are several claimants to the title “Mother of Father’s Day.”  However, it’s generally accepted that Father’s Day was created in Spokane, Washington, by Sonora Dodd, for her father, William Smart, a single dad who raised six kids.  She wanted to celebrate it on his birthday, June 5th, but due to the church schedule, the first Father’s Day ceremony was held on June 19th, 1910 (the third Sunday in June of that year.)  At first, Father’s Day mucked along with some limited success (in 1916, it was recognized by President Woodrow Wilson) but in those days, dad was kinda the silent partner in the family unit, and the holiday fell into disuse.  It wasn’t until the Great Depression was slappin’ the economic crap out of everybody that we rediscovered Father’s Day.  It was a simple case of two ideas coming together at the same time.  While retailers were grasping at advertising straws to promote sales, the rest of us were more than willing to accept any excuse to brighten up the daily grind (which, by all accounts, was pretty grinding.)  Father’s Day came back into vogue – somewhat.  It still didn’t have the cachet Mother’s Day did, but at least dad could read the newspaper undisturbed one Sunday morning a year — if he so chose.

By the 1950s Father’s Day was fairly well established in North America.  However, in the United States, Congress still didn’t think that the American people needed a day to honour dad.  It wasn’t until Lyndon Johnson issued a presidential proclamation in 1966 that Father’s Day had any official status, at all.  Six years later, in 1972, President Nixon signed Father’s Day into law.  In actually fact, Father’s Day, in the US, is not a national holiday.  It’s something called a “Federal Observance,” which, as I’ve already stated, basically means dad doesn’t get the day off.

These days, Father’s Day is big business, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the other big hitters: Mother’s Day, Valentine’s and St. Paddy’s.  Dad isn’t being ignored anymore — most baseball teams try to get a home game on Father’s Day — but he’s still just dad, the guy you go looking for when it snows.  For example, Father’s Day is head and shoulders above any other day of the year for collect telephone calls.  Besides, we all know, from bitter experience, that most dads are tough to buy for.

This year, however, let me help you out.  Instead of stretching your brain all out of shape and ending up with the World’s Greatest Dad barbeque apron, give it a rest.  Jump in the car or get on your bike, wheel on over and spend some time just hanging with the old man.  It’ll do you both good.

If You Don’t Understand Our World, Blame Gutenberg!

If you live long enough, you find yourself out of the loop.  You lose touch with your own society.  You don’t understand the language anymore, fashions look scandalous, music is noise, young people are stupid and technology is a battle, not a convenience.  This is why, for the most part, old people are grumpy.  They simply don’t understand the world they live in.  This is the natural order of things, and we all do it.  It’s been going on since Zeus replaced Horus as the god of choice along the Nile.  In essence, we remain brand loyal to the years that made sense to us and we never leave them, regardless of what the rest of the world is doing.  So we fondly remember the 60s or the 20s (or whenever we thought we were cool) and naturally wonder, loud and long what the hell happened to that time.

However, in recent history, this generational disconnection has become more than just a side effect of the trudge to the grave; it’s now happening to young people.  Thirty-year-olds are looking back at the 80s like it was a Golden Age.  Forty-year-olds are wrapping themselves in fashions clearly unsuitable for a widening waistline, and if you’re creeping up on fifty — forget it – you just might as well have been born during Prohibition.  The problem is we live in an age when the layers of knowledge are getting thinner and thinner, and if you miss one, you can never catch up.  Here’s how it works.

For the thousand years or so between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, nothing much changed in our world.  Certainly, there were scientific and social advances during that time, but progress was slow.  To your average peasant, one century looked pretty much like the last one: a bit more plague, a little less heretic burning, but no decided differences.  People were born, lived and died in a world dominated by the church, impending famine and war.  Generations of people worked the land, built cathedrals and occasionally bashed each other over the head — for a millennium — with the tools and weapons their ancestors used.  Innovation, when it came, travelled slowly and new ideas were not readily accepted.  The layers of knowledge were thick.

This all changed when a German named Gutenberg built a printing press sometime around 1436.  Suddenly, ideas didn’t have to travel by word of mouth anymore (getting totally screwed up along the way.)  They could be written down and printed in large numbers.  So, if Wolfgang, a Bavarian smart guy, figured out a better way to grind wheat that knowledge was both easily assessable and, more importantly, widely distributed (with no embellishments.)  With this rapid exchange of information, the
layers of knowledge got remarkably thinner.  By the time Pope Urban VIII was threatening to cut off Galileo’s protruding parts for saying the Earth revolved around the sun — not the other way around — in 1633, there was no stopping it.  Galileo may have recanted his discoveries to save his appendages, but his book remained out there for anybody to read.

Thus it was that invention no longer had to rely on the genius of one person to initiate change, nor the local gossipmonger to spread the word about it.  Books changed all that; ideas became permanently available.  Philosophers and scientists could build on each others’ knowledge just by reading each others’ books.  And each innovation was also written about, in turn, thus spawning dozens of refinements that continued the cycle.  The world of ideas expanded exponentially.  The layers of our society’s knowledge became thinner and thinner.

Skip forward two centuries and these days the layers of knowledge are so thin they don’t last more than a couple of years.  Some are added to our world and expanded upon before people are even acquainted with them.  For example, for 99% of history, people looked at a map if they wanted to know where they were going.  In the late 1990s, the GPS system revolutionized that.  However, before anybody could really cash in on a stand-alone GPS device, it became an accessory (App?) on our Smart phones.  The same thing is now happening with digital cameras and MP3 players.  These devices were born, lived and died in less time than it takes an average person to get a PhD in Sociology.

There is no longer a generation gap in our society.  There is only an information gap.  As the world spins ever faster all around us, we long for the security blanket of the objects we’re familiar with – whether they’re electronic devices or social interaction.  Nobody fully understands the world we live in (not that anybody ever did) but in the 21st century, more and more of us are falling further and further behind.  People are downloading information at such a furious rate they can no longer process it properly.  (For example, that last sentence wouldn’t have made sense a couple of generations ago.)   The result is we look with nostalgia on what we remember as a simpler time.  So the next time you see some kid with droopy drawers, talking to what is clearly a teenage prostitute, in a language akin to gibberish, blame it on Gutenberg: he started it all.

Taxation: The First 10,000 Years

When I was a kid, there were troops of old farts kicking around, whose sole purpose was to make a nuisance of themselves and dispense wisdom in the form of colourful homilies.  Any time anyone under the age of 40 screwed up, they would lean back like balding owls and pronounce: “There’s many a slip ‘tween the cup and the lip” or “A fool and his money are soon parted” or some other such nonsense.  My favourite was “There are only two things certain in this life: death and taxes.”  I always treated that one with “roll your eyes” respect because, as a student, I didn’t notice (or care) what taxes I paid (there simply weren’t that many.)  Furthermore, my youth came with a prepackaged shield of immortality that protected me from the Grim Reaper (who was only an ugly rumour anyway.)  In other words, both concepts were foreign to me.  In my world, people were supposed to pay their fair share of taxes.  After all, I did, and if they were unfortunate enough to get old and die, it was their own damn fault.  Luckily, these days we don’t let our old people hang out with us anymore.  We warehouse them in seniors’ facilities where they can wither away as they see fit and keep their smartass remarks to themselves.

The idea of death is easy to understand; all you have to do is live long enough, and it will come find you.  Taxes, however, are more complicated.   They are beautiful in their simplicity but downright grotesque in their execution.  In essence, taxation means, as a society, we are going to gather our money together to buy things we can’t afford individually.  Sometimes these things are tangible items like roads and boats and buildings, and sometimes they’re conceptual — like education, security and health care.  Regardless, we use taxation to pay for the common good.  The complication comes, not from what is the common good (I think we all agree on that) but how we get there from here.  This question has plagued most societies since before Kofu the Egyptian decided he needed a bigger tomb than his dad and somebody was going to have to pick up the tab for it.  In those days, however, it was pretty easy to figure out who did the paying.  Basically, when the pharaoh said it was tax time, you threw in your pennies or the next voice you heard was the guy with the whip, hollering “Pull.”  After all, pyramids don’t build themselves.  My point is, for most of history, it was the local Pooh-bah who decided what constituted the common good, and taxation without representation was a universally accepted concept.

This arrangement worked for thousands of years.  There were some bumps in the road — like Robin Hood and the Magna Carta, peasant revolts and the English parliament — but in general, people shut their mouths and paid their taxes.  The money disappeared into wars, royal mistresses and monuments and society thrived.  Unfortunately (or fortunately) this all came to a screaming halt in 1763.  This is an extremely tangled bit of history, but here’s the Twitter version.

Immediately following the Seven Years War (which many consider the first genuine World War) Britain found itself in dire straits financially.  They’d just beaten the crap out of the French … again, but they’d had to mortgage everything but the Tower of London to do it.  In a word, the Brits were broke.   They looked across the Atlantic at their American colonies and saw a bunch of fat and happy farmers with coin in their breeches.  It looked like a no brainer.  Parliament would tax the thirteen American colonies to pay for, not only their part in the recent war but also any future administration and protection.  To the English, this was a win/win situation; to the Americans, it was highway robbery.  Actually, the Americans weren’t opposed to taxes as such (no more than usual, anyway.)  They were much more concerned with who got their mitts on the money.  As freeborn Englishmen, they wanted some colonial representation in Parliament to oversee the coin they were shipping across the Atlantic.  They had the radical idea that if they had to pony up the cash, they should at least have a say in how it was spent.  It was a new Golden Rule (If I provide the gold, I make the rules) brought on by reading too much Voltaire and Rousseau by candlelight.  Lord North’s government in London called this outrageous school of thought treason.  The Americans, not known for prolonged discussion even then, reached for their muskets.  As we all know, insurrection is only wrong if it fails.  The Americans didn’t fail, the thirteen British colonies became the United States of America and for the first time since Pericles was a pup, taxation with representation was more than just a philosopher’s fantasy.

The odd thing was this New World idea caught on.  Pretty soon, French peasants wanted a say in how their government was run and how their money was being spent.  Then it was Haiti and the nations of South America; then Greece, and pretty soon, people all over the world were demanding this new taxation with representation.  It was a worldwide phenomenon and the first and only fundamental change to the tax system — until now.

Wednesday: Contemporary Taxation: A Fundamental Change