John D. Rockefeller – Sinner or Saint?

A way to a man’s heart is through sex, food, and Ron Chernow books. The last one is probably particular to me, but thankfully my wife knows me very well; for Christmas last year she bought me Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr by – you guessed who – Ron Chernow. I first became interested in Rockefeller after watching the History Channel series The Men Who Built America which profiles the dominant imperialists of the Gilded Age. The History Channel usually churns out complete garbage, but this show was actually informative and entertaining – compared to the ubiquitous alien conspiracy theory shows. Rockefeller is one of the most complicated men I have ever read about and hence Chernow’s biography of him took up a mammoth 700 pages.

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Rockefeller, unlike Vanderbilt or JP Morgan, was not your typical Rober Baron who accumulated money for the sake of hedonism. Wealth and success to Rockefeller represented God’s blessings – blessings which could not be squandered. He lived a simple life relative to his fortune which in today’s money was worth 400 billion dollars. Oil was the foundation of that fortune and for decades his company, Standard Oil, dominated the global refining business. With vast wealth comes enormous controversy – Rockefeller was a ruthless businessman who negotiated unfair trade deals with the railroads – squeezing out small refiners in the process. These shady business practices were during a time when industry was mostly unregulated in America. Ida Tarbell, the famous Muckraker journalist, vilified Rockefeller – subsequently rallying public opinion and the US government to break up Standard Oil’s monopoly. Ironically, the break up of Standard Oil made Rockefeller even wealthier – he continued to own large shares of his stepchildren’s companies still known today: Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, Chevron, Sun, Conoco.

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Rockefeller stepped away from the oil business in his late 50’s and enjoyed a long retirement of philanthropy. Thanks to several Rockefeller foundations, the fields of education, medicine, and research were expanded. It can be argued that the United States world-renowned college system is a direct result of Rockefeller – he set the standard for medical research and founded the prestigious University of Chicago. Before Rockefeller, the state of medicine in the US was that of snake oil salesman – after Rockefeller medicine evolved into a rigorous scientific discipline. Some would question whether we should support philanthropy from “dirty” oil money? I would argue that Rockefeller made business decisions like a strict father; they were harsh but many times fair, as the oil business was in large part saved by Rockefeller’s big thinking principles. During the financial crises of the late 19th century, many small refiners went bust all while Standard Oil maintained record low prices for the consumer. Capitalism is tough and Rockefeller was one of the toughest. When we critique his decisions, we must look at things contextually. Rockefeller was not without blame, but I don’t think that his legacy is one of a sinner. I think his legacy is complicated and the fairest assessment should come from his opponents…

“The press, once hostile to him, formed his biggest cheering section. ‘It is doubful whether any private individual has ever spent a great fortune more wisely than Mr. Rockefeller,’ Pulitzer’s World editorialized in 1923, while the Hearst press, not to be outdone, states, ‘The Rockefellers have given away more money and to better advantage than anybody else in the world’s history since the ark stranded on Ararat.'”

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I believe that Rockefeller is no saint when compared to the world as a whole…but maybe a saint when compared to the wealthiest individuals in the history of the world. Excessive wealth usually corrupts and leaves no positive legacy. Rockefeller following his religious views used each penny wisely. Those pennies may have been tainted, but in the end, they were shined up for a noble purpose; a purpose which Rockefeller pursued until his death at 97 years old. So what’s your verdict? Was Rockefeller a sinner or a saint?

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A Chihuahua Haunting

Have you ever seen a ghost? Or maybe experienced something that couldn’t be explained with words? I once saw a little girl in a mirror upon waking – it still gives me the willies today. I believe certain people are more in tune with the “other” realm and they are more apt to experience ephemeral encounters. IMG_0561Children are prone to “seeing” ghosts or talking to rooms that are completely empty; maybe because of their innocence or even openness to the unknown. This logic can be extended down the tree of life to my idiotic Chihuahua – Max. There is no creature that is more innocent and open minded than Max – his outlook on life is an eternal Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory Tour. I imagine him waking up to the world each morning with a complete erasure of memory; only remembering his “chocolate” surroundings when he hears me dishing out his daily allotment of tortilla chips. Hence, this complete innocence is why Max can interact with all sorts of paranormal activity. It is not uncommon that he barks to an empty room; or stares eerily at the vacuum cleaner; or evenIMG_0543 throws up nasty green stuff as if possessed by a demon. A chihuahua is the boiled down version of all our fears – everything is a potential poltergeist. Like Max, we all to a degree fear the unknown and search for answers to unexplained phenomenon. For these reasons, I read one of NPR’s great reads of 2016, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey.

America has a myriad of supposedly haunted houses, commercial buildings, ruins, cemeteries, and even entire cities. Dickey lists several examples but there are a few that stand above all others. One is the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California that was built bImage result for winchester mystery housey Sarah Winchester – the heiress to the Winchester Gun fortune. It is over 20,000 square feet and has 160 rooms which are discombobulated to confuse spirits. There is also the Lalaurie Mansion in New Orleans, the previous host to slaves who were punished with crude experiments, starvation, prolonged chaining, and dismemberment. Head over to Pennsylvania to take a tour of the Eastern State Penitentiary with its formidable facade and even more foreboding interior to hear the cries of long dead inmates. Better yet, search around the city of Detroit for an evil-red-dwarf known as the Nain Rouge – said to be responsible for all of the city’s calamities. Go back west to the hotel that inspiredImage result for eastern state penitentiary Stephen King’s The Shining. The Stanley Hotel, located in Estes Park, Colorado is an isolated building that throughout the years has seen its fair share of ghost sightings. Suffice it to say, no matter where you are in America, you are not far from a haunted place.

 

Is there any truth to these haunted places? I believe there is an underlying mystery to these locales because of their histories but many times the stories are twisted for a specific purpose. For example, many haunted places are connected with Indian burial grounds. TheImage result for slaveryse “backstories” are usually completely erroneous and are added to give merit to the “spiritual” activity. We use ghost stories to sanitize history which goes counter to our modern idea of a “Just America.” Whether it is a black slave left to wander the plantation or a young girl who was killed in cold blood – a haunting helps us interact with a past that just doesn’t fit with our worldview. Of course, many times these haunted places are passed off to the public for the sake of money. Ghost tourism is a booming business  -especially in haunted cities like New Orleans.
Image result for nain rougeCapitalism is a strong harbinger of the dead and it does a great job of perpetuating half truths and whole lies. The modern day ghost story is a caricature mirrored after images that the public expects: from big screen movies to the Haunted Mansion ride in Disney. Humans are always in search of answers and we project our current beliefs into the past – today more than ever we are disconnected from the idea of “death.” Just like Max, the ghost stories of today can either be explained as just another mistaken bump in the night or an actual murderer lurking outside. To me these places are haunted – they are haunted by the living who can’t let go of their fear of the unknown. Do ghosts exist? Look in the mirror.