Posted by: justawriter | October 28, 2009

Far Afield – What’s in a name or label?

It was pointed out to me that in last week’s Beacon I said a group of Beulah citizens were agitating for changes to the city’s flood response and that word could be taken the wrong way.
If that word offended anyone, I am truly sorry. But I am more sorry for the crippled state of the English language that the word agitator could be construed as an insult. I don’t know of a nobler descriptor for someone who sees a problem and tries to solve it. There has been little of value accomplished in this nation that wasn’t the product of some agitation by brave men and women.
Take a look at the founding fathers. Is rhetoric like “As for me, give me liberty or give me death,” the speech of someone who is seeking reconciliation with the status quo? Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams – none of these men were shrinking violets more concerned with the approval of their neighbors than the welfare of their nation.
Look at the things we take for granted – a five day, 40 hour week, paid vacations, wages high enough to provide homes for our families – all of these things were not given to hard working Americans out of the goodness of someone’s heart. It took years of struggle and toil to make those seemingly basic concessions part of the everyday part of living in America.
Even something as simple and basic to human existence as pure, unadulterated food didn’t come without a struggle. One of the great heros of the pure food fight, an agitator to the core, was a North Dakotan. Edwin Ladd was a chemistry professor at what is now North Dakota State University. He came to the state in the 1890s and discovered through his research that many foods at that time were colored by toxic dyes, were made with unhealthy ingredients and were deceptively labeled. He tried to have a bill introduced into the legislature in 1897 to crack down on these practices but no legislator would introduce it.
Ladd wasn’t one to back down from a fight. Since no one would protect the people, he would help the people protect themselves. In 1902, he made a list of objectionable food products, all of which he had tested in his university laboratory. He distributed that list to the county newspapers in North Dakota. Many of them printed the entire list, even though it ran to several pages of newsprint. He was sued for libel for $100,000 by out-of-state manufacturers, a good sized fortune in that day and age. But the people of North Dakota rallied around Ladd and contributed money for his defense. Later they sent him to the United States Senate where he continued his battle for clean, healthy foods.
It is hard to think of an accomplishment that has made America better that didn’t come from the passion of agitators. The right for all people, regardless of gender or race to vote, work, and live where they want. The right to worship as you please. The struggle to make the United States a place that lives up to its ideals has been part of the story of this nation and will continue to be inseparable from its fabric. When this country loses its agitators, it will start to die.
I understand why people dislike agitators. They ask difficult questions. They won’t go away if they are told no. They disrupt the smooth routines of everyday life. But without them there would be no change and without change there can be no growth. One of my favorite quotes is from Frederick Douglass, who was chastised for his strident opposition to slavery. Douglass was so strident because he was born a slave. He condemned those who sought a milder course of action.
If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
Another, less serious question asks the name of the part of the washing machine that beats the filth out of the clothes – it’s called the agitator.

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