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Posts Tagged ‘history’

Also: Angry = Malleable

Polls tell us that people voted for Trump because they’re angry: angry at the economy for leaving them behind; angry at the government for not helping; angry at politicians for doing nothing. It’s understandable, the economy is clearly not serving middle class America. Plus there’s a drug epidemic out there, the threats of terrorism are real, and some parts of the country can’t even drink the water. Yep, lots to be angry about.

There’s a real problem with that, though. When you’re angry, you’re stupid. Science says so.

Anger is a powerful emotion. It evolved in humans as a mechanism to protect oneself, or one’s food, or one’s mate, or one’s offspring. It, like it’s counterpart, fear, is a knee-jerk reaction to a threat. Something threatens you, and your instincts gurgle up one of these two emotions, depending on your likelihood of survival. If your instincts think you can beat back the threat, then anger wells up, raising adrenaline and endorphins, giving you more strength than you normally might have. You can then bellow in rage or outright attack to fend off the threat. Fear is different: if your instincts think you have no chance of survival, they’ll use that nasty feeling in the pit of your stomach to convince you to run away.

Here’s the rub: neither of those emotionally-driven reactions are controlled by the mind. They’re not, because the mind is too slow. You’ll be sitting there, pondering all the options, while that sabre-tooth tiger gnaws on your bones. Your instincts must work, and they must work now, or you’re a dead proto-human.

Let’s fast-forward the clock 10,000 years. Most of the immediate threats to our lives no longer exist (the only one left is, well, Man). So … what good are the strong emotions of Fear and Anger? Well, they’re kinda worthless today, but we’ve had them for sooooo long now, they’re hard to shake. They crop up at the worst times and, because they shut off the thinking mind, they make us stupid.

In some cases, they short-circuit our wellbeing. An overwrought anger mechanism is the worst sort of demon one can have. You’re a walking Rage Monster, ready to fly off the handle if someone looks at you funny or takes the last Hot Pocket. If you’re self-aware, you seek counseling or find an outlet to keep from tearing yourself or your family apart. If you’re not self-aware, well, you’re probably going to end up in prison. You’re certainly not going to walk around making sane life choices.

The other thing that’s bad about anger is it’s easily manipulatable. You can use all sorts of trickery to trigger an anger response, and media outlets (who are more marketers than journalists) are experts at it. It’s even worse in a crowd, there’s a reason demagogues are successful.

So let’s now couple these two things together: anger makes us stupid, and it’s easy to manipulate people through anger. Here’s the earth-shattering conclusion:

People who are stirring up your anger are doing so to manipulate you into making stupid decisions.

That’s the key story of The Trumpocalypse: between the various right-wing media outlets, the Republican Party, the Christian Right, and Donald Trump himself, enough of the voting public was manipulated into making the stupidest decision of our lives.

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His Fraudulency, The President of the United States

It’s been seven days since America proved, by actual vote, that it’s lost its mind. I am still utterly disgusted. Not disappointed, but actually disgusted. I know things suck in many parts of the country. I know economic statistics belie the misery of underemployment. I know there are a lot of reasons to suspect that America is up against the ropes and isn’t living up to its potential. And there is definitely something wrong with our political institutions, especially the two major parties. Still, I have to ask:

What in the world were you thinking?

I hate to break the news to you, but Donald Trump is a fraud. A masterful marketer? Yes. A reality-show diva? Absolutely. A wizard at real estate? Without a doubt. But in terms of having the knowledge, the skills, the temperament, the dedication, the wherewithal, the understanding, or even the fundamental class & decency necessary to hold the highest office in the land? Absolutely not. In all these terms, he’s a total fraud. You have been duped, my fellow Americans, and you’ve screwed us all accordingly. You elected a snake-oil salesman as President of the United States of America.

This is a man who made his billions riding the vagaries of the real estate market. That’s … pretty much it. He bought low & sold high at the right times, that’s his only primary skill. The rest? It’s all fluff and nonsense. Sure, he has a team of high-powered lawyers to screw over contractors and protect his interests. Sure, he has clever accountants who know how to ride the tax system. But what has he actually contributed to society? Nothing. At least Ross Perot created a couple of early-era tech companies, resulting in thousands of highly paid jobs. At least Michael Bloomberg ran a respected financial research company, providing millions of investors, large and small, with quality information. What did Trump do for anyone other than his immediate family and close circle of sycophants? Create crappy service-sector jobs cleaning toilets and carrying golf clubs? Yippee.

Beyond that, what is he? He’s a masterful marketer and self-promoter, that’s what he is. Trump-this and Trump-that, all of these products essentially frauds. Most things with his name on them are just license arrangements, he’s only directly involved in a handful of businesses. He’s nothing but a trademark. He’s the Wizard of Oz: a big, bloated head, floating around, trying to scare people. Behind the curtain? A very small and unimportant man. He’s all show and no do; all bluster and no muster. He has done nothing but promotepromotepromote, always about himself, never about others. Even his charitable works are under serious suspicion. He’s even screwed over veterans’ causes. First rule of being a president is you must care about the country and its people. He has never, in his sordid history, shown the least concern about anyone or anything other than his own brand.

Even his stupid reality show didn’t result in much more than humiliation for some and feeble opportunities for others. Why in the world did you believe that a reality show star is qualified for anything? Do you even watch reality TV, that fetid showcase of the dregs of humanity, full of nothing but literal, metaphorical, and philosophical nutshots? You wanted one of those people as POTUS? Geez, have you no sense at all?

Shouldn’t a president have some knowledge of how the world truly works? If you think he (or she) should, have you ever listened … I mean really listened … to anything Donald Trump says? Stereotypical marketing blather, that’s all. His statements on how to “make America great again” contain as much understanding and wisdom as an Axe Body Spray commercial. His quotes are right up there with “I’ll paint any car for $99.95” and “makes your colors bright and your whites white” (hmmm, that last one may have been a poor example for a completely different set of reasons). There’s even serious evidence that he’s functionally illiterate. Why would you want such a person in high office? For the lulz?

Finally, shouldn’t a president at least have some dignity? The president represents the entire country. The job simultaneously requires strength and gravitas, neither of which Donald Trump has ever shown. He is weak-willed and goofy, he has skin as thick as a ripe peach and all the seriousness of a bag of gummy worms. He sends vitriolic tweet storms against low-grade comics who pick on him on TV, and spent his debate appearances defending his own penis size. He’s his own caricature, a walking punch line, a joke of the worst sort. This is even before considering his constant stream of insulting remarks made over the last 18 months. How is any of that presidential? Sure, it makes the average fourth-grader laugh, but how does that represent our country, our values? If you voted for Donald Trump as president, you clearly have as much respect for the country as you have for a high school pep squad.

I don’t get it. I honestly do not get it. I do have a suspicion as to where this country is heading, though. Four years from now, it’s gonna look something like this:

 

 

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Book Review

There was only one topic I wanted to discuss in a blog post on Jimmy Carter, and that was how a Presidency could fail. It is as important, if not more so, to study failure as it is to study success. I scoured Amazon & Google for books on the Carter presidency, hoping to find a treatise on how it went so wrong.

Unfortunately, I found myself knee-deep in the right-wing hate machine. Boy, how conservatives use the failings of Jimmy Carter’s presidency as as a way to prop up their own agendas. Book after book after book is set up to just drag the 39th president through vitriol-laden mud, leaping to grandiose conclusions about “character” and “socialism”. Here’s a man, a guy who truly cares about people, whose character is almost above reproach (especially compared to most politicians), treated so harshly by such an abundance of writers, all to “prove” how right-wing ideals are just so great for this country …

Mattson Book

Anyway, before I get too high on my political soapbox, I eventually came across “What The Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” by Kevin Mattson. His book isn’t an analysis of the entire Carter presidency, but it is an insightful piece on the infamous “malaise speech” of 1979. Through interviews and research, he assembles not just a narrative on the crafting of the speech, but a collage of the various bad decisions leading up to it. It’s not hateful, or condescending, or serving some personal agenda. It is a fair analysis, a decent read, and, in my opinion, helpful for anyone studying not just the Carter presidency, but leadership in general.

Unbiased, analytical approaches to contemporary political events are rare. They do exist, though. You just have to dig a little deeper to find them.

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Kevin Mattson at Ohio University

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Failures in Leadership

When it comes to posting about Jimmy Carter — Nobel Peace Prize winner, home builder, human rights advocate, international statesman — I could have gone in many directions. In light of his recent cancer diagnoses, I could have focused on his positive, post-1980 accomplishments, and may have gotten a lot of positive comments and referrals. Instead, I feel compelled to talk about his greatest failure: his leadership during his tenure as the 39th President of the United States.

Before I go on, I have to say it’s really unfair for me to criticize others for poor leadership. I have practically no leadership abilities at all. I’ve proven time and time again that this is a skill or talent that I simply do not possess, and almost every attempt I’ve made to take leadership of anything has been a fairly abysmal failure. However, I think I can recognize good leadership when I see it. I’ve known a lot of good, and even great, leaders personally, and through careful observation of their methods, I think I have a fair bead on what makes a good leader. I’ve also known a lot of horrible leaders, and am fairly certain I know what poor leaders lack.

Any post criticizing Jimmy Carter would also be unfair if it did not include a disclaimer statement about “level of difficulty”. Carter was elected President in 1976, a period of great internal strife in the U.S. President Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1973. America’s most divisive and most embarrassing confrontation — the Vietnam War — ended in 1975 with the Fall of Saigon. The Cold War’s nuclear arms race was well into its fearful Mutually Assured Destruction phase. Inflation was at a troubling 12%, and the nation was in a depressing funk barely masked by the revelries celebrating our nation’s 200th birthday. Carter was entering into a losing proposition, it would take immense skill to turn the ship of state around.

A_SENIOR_CITIZENS'_MARCH_TO_PROTEST_INFLATION,_UNEMPLOYMENT_AND_HIGH_TAXES_STOPPED_ALONG_LAKE_SHORE_DRIVE_IN_CHICAGO..._-_NARA_-_556256

Yeah, times were GREAT!

Unfortunately, Jimmy Carter, during his tenure as President, was a pretty poor leader.

Of course, that’s not particularly insightful. Folks have been saying this for 35 years, Jimmy Carter has taken quite a bashing from all sides since 1980. If he hadn’t been so successful in his post-Presidential career, he’d be nothing but an entry on a list between Martin Van Buren and Calvin Coolidge: barely remembered unless you went to Carter High School or your commute took you over the Carter Bridge. I’m glad he went on to do great things after his presidency, he’s probably one of the most ethical men to ever hold the office, and he deserves better than a minor footnote in a history textbook. So how did an otherwise good man fail to be an effective leader?

In my opinion, one event, more than any other, illustrates exactly why Carter was such a bad leader as President. That event was his infamous Malaise Speech, delivered to the nation via broadcast television on July 15, 1979. This was a speech that, although initially receiving a favorable reception by the American people, would go down in infamy as the worst speech ever given to the nation by a seated President. This was a speech that would become so reviled, it not only resulted in the loss of the White House to the Republicans in 1980, it most certainly caused the death of American progressive politics.

But wait, something here doesn’t quite compute, does it? How could a simple speech ruin a Presidency and kill a political movement? Speeches are nothing, really, just air exiting through a larynx, magnified by microphones and amplifiers. Most people, even then, rarely listen to political speeches, and of those who do, few even remember anything about them. Throughout American history — over 400 years if you include the colonial period — only half a dozen or so political speeches (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, etc.) have entered into the national consciousness. It’s certain that dozens upon dozens of Presidential speeches quite literally sucked, full of triteness and pandering and even lunacy. Did any of them derail a presidency?

No, and this speech, itself, did not derail Carter’s. What killed his presidency, and what marked Jimmy Carter as a terrible leader during that phase, was he felt that the nation actually needed a speech to solve its problems. That was the fundamental mistake, the fundamental error, the fundamental misunderstanding of leadership that Carter had during that period. What he did was deliver a speech as the solution, rather than delivering a speech to communicate the solution. 

Not a great idea.

Not a great idea.

So many people in positions of authority try this tactic. These folks think that they can inspire people by words. They’ve heard the lore of those half-dozen cool American speeches, or have seen Patton, Braveheart, Henry V, or even Independence Day, and think “ooh, that’s what I need to inspire my troops, a good speech!” Well, no, nothing can be farther from the truth.

My first encounter with a real leader was my Boy Scout scoutmaster. He was a quiet, soft-spoken guy. I can’t remember his speaking voice, honestly. But all the kids loved him because he did stuff. We always had stuff to do, every meeting was full of activities, and our camping trips were chock-full of things to do. His job moved him to second shift, and we got a new scoutmaster. That one was a chatty guy, and the absolute worst scoutmaster. Activities dropped, camping trips dropped, and I dropped Scouts entirely.

Later, I worked at an apple orchard. The owner was not necessarily soft spoken, but he was a great guy. He motivated us to work hard, not through his words, but because he was a hard working guy. If you were employed by him, you would be ashamed to be a slacker because he worked so hard.

I would see other good leaders who displayed good leadership because they loved what they did, or they took the time to teach those under them, or they took bold moves, or they were simply good at their job. They were leaders because they did stuff, not because they talked about stuff. It’s not even about caring for your people — there is no doubt that Jimmy Carter cared about the American people — it’s about recognizing that doing is a prerequisite to leading. 

If Carter had focused more on getting things done as President, he could have made all the crappy speeches in the world and no one would have cared. But he felt the people needed a speech, and history has proven that was a bad choice. Fortunately, Mr. Carter would go on to do plenty of good things in his post-Presidential career, and now he is well respected by many. But for one, brief time, when it was needed the most, he had the wrong idea of what true leadership actually is.

Well, maybe I stand corrected.

Well, maybe I stand corrected.

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I didn’t bring my camera when I visited the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site. All photos used in this post are public domain and hosted on Wikipedia Commons.

Jimmy Carter National Historic Site

Character Above All Essay on Jimmy Carter

Jimmy & Roslyn Carter Work Project at Habitat for Humanity

Google Map to JCNHS

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Concepts of Time

When Lewis and Clark left St. Louis to explore the Great Frontier:

It’s only been 210 years since they set off. In the grand scheme of things, that’s pretty tiny. But look at everything that’s happened.

  • The country: Nearing 320 million
  • The population center is now actually west of Missouri, showing the great expansion of the country and the migration of her people.
  • New York City: 7 million
  • St. Louis: 300,000, and the city has existed so long it’s actually decaying (like all the other great industrial cities)
  • About three hours from Boston to New York if you’re a stodgy driver.
  • A couple more to fly to London
  • You can drive across the entire country in just a few days, or fly over it in about six hours or so.
  • But really, who cares? With Skype, you can talk to someone across country instantaneously. No reason to go anywhere.

It’s hard to fathom sometimes how quickly things have changed, and how much has happened in a measly 200 years.

Courtesy National Park Service

Courtesy National Park Service

Go to St. Louis. See the Gateway Arch. It’s way cool.

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Jefferson National Expansion Memorial

Visionaries with Courage (Video)

Some Gateway Arch photos taken by the masses

Google map to the Gateway Arch

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Book Review: DARK HORSE: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield

The last few years have been a bit rough. Between home improvement projects, a near-career meltdown, and some (albeit minor) health problems, I’ve not only been away from blogging, but I’ve been away from my favorite hobbies. I allowed other, less interesting facets of my life to distract me from the things I love doing: traveling the National Parks and reading books on American history.

Various physical and financial barriers are easing up, and I hope to resume traveling in earnest when spring comes. In the interim, I knew I needed something to rejuvenate my reading. Unfortunately, the next subject for my blog — the home of James Garfield, 20th President of the United States — didn’t seem too promising. I knew very little about the man, and few people discuss his life or presidency. He’s all but forgotten, like a pointless tchotchke in America’s attic. I feared I would be in for another dull read. I still haven’t finished my densely boring pick for the French & Indian War. I wasn’t looking forward to a repeat of that.

I surfed around the Amazon store, and found Ken Ackerman’s Dark Horse. It had decent reviews, but I still wasn’t too confident in my selection, simply because of the subject matter.

I aDark Horsem immensely thankful I was proven wrong. Dark Horse was an excellent selection.

What Ackerman did with Dark Horse is something I really enjoy. Instead of focusing on every trivial tidbit about Garfield’s days in some ramshackle schoolhouse, Ackerman tells the important story: the sequence of events that set Mr. Garfield, tragically, on a path to his own assassination. Ackerman tells the story of Garfield’s surprising nomination and eventual election to the highest office of the land, including all the backroom dealings of allies and foes, and how a delusional slob would use factional loyalty as an excuse to commit murder. Ackerman takes all the items important to the narrative, and to the development of the characters involved, and weaves the story as a story, not as a lecture. This makes a topic as seemingly banal as Garfield’s assassination and makes it actually riveting.

Sure, this is no John Grisham novel. This is history, and history rarely lives up to Hollywood panache. But Ackerman did a great job telling the tale as it truly occurred. I am very grateful I picked this book to rejuvenate my hobby, it was exactly what the doctor ordered. I already have my next selection for my next historically-themed post on my Kindle.

So thanks, Mr. Ackerman. You’ve helped a hobbyist regain his motivation.

 

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A Monument to the Politically Crazy

Somewhere in Mentor, Ohio, sits the well-kept home of our 20th President, James A. Garfield. Few Americans know anything about James Garfield, or perhaps their only knowledge of this man is through the lyrics of a Johnny Cash song:

Mr. Garfield been shot down shot down shot down

Mr. Garfield been shot down low

President Garfield was assassinated by spurned office-seeker and political nutbag, Charles Guiteau, on July 2nd, 1881, a mere 160 days after his inauguration. As far as assassinated Presidents goes, Garfield is simply one of four, an afterthought on a list that also contains one great (Abraham Lincoln) and one beloved (John F. Kennedy).

Few remember James Garfield, but I think the story of Garfield is tremendously valid today, and should be read and understood by anyone and everyone with a political leaning, whether left or right, whether they follow Fox News or the Huffington Post or even the Onion. The story of President Garfield is the story of dangerous political extremism.

Assassination of President Grant (www.authentichistory.com)

Anatomy of an Assassin

If I was to ask a panel of experts or non-experts, “what makes a presidential assassin”, I’m sure the bulk of them would say, in language academic or mundane, “they’re crazy”. By and large, anyone who would assassinate POTUS would have to be crazy. When you think about it, there’s not really a lot of point to it: our system of government isn’t particularly susceptible to change or overthrow in that manner. Between our tripartite government, our well-defined system of presidential succession, our deeply entrenched two-party politics, and the ponderous inertia of a democracy, the assassination of our President won’t really make much of a difference, other than to put the nation in a state of mourning. It could even steel our resolve to “stay the course” more than simply waiting until the next election to instigate change.

So if there’s no value in assassinating the president, then why do it? Well, John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln in retaliation for the Confederate loss in the Civil War, and the abolishment of the institution of slavery. Leon Czolgosz, the man who shot William McKinley, was a turn-of-the-century anarchist inspired by a slew of assassinations in Europe. Lee Harvey Oswald was a Communist sympathizer (or maybe a patsy for the mob, or for the FBI, or by grey aliens, or who-knows-what). Slavery. Anarchy. Communism. Heavy, deeply philosophical ideas. Crazy, but deep crazy.

Charlie Guiteau? Charlie Guiteau killed James Garfield because his particular wing of the GOP (the Stalwarts) lost to Garfield in the Republican convention of 1880.

Um, seriously? That’s shallow crazy right there.

Charlie Guiteau (wikipedia)

The Drudgery Grudgery of Politics

There is a long, complicated story surrounding the 1880 Republican Convention. To summarize, there were two favorites. The Stalwarts stood behind former President Ulysses S Grant, and the Half-Breeds stood behind Senator James Blaine of Maine. During the convention (a weird affair, like all other 18th century conventions), dark-horse  James Garfield — a compromise candidate offered when neither favorite carried a majority — surprisingly won the nomination. He would then go on to defeat Democrat William Hancock in the general election.

There’s a lot more to this, of course, but it would probably bore you to tears. Which is kinda the point: all these inner workings of the two-party system, all the legerdemain cast by the party machines, it’s all fairly petty stuff. It’s all about favoritism, and patronage, and civil service, and all this other nonsense. None of it is “deep”, none of it is particularly soul-renching. None of it is, even in a madman’s eyes, cause for assassination! Unless, of course, you’re a person with the shallowness of purpose as Charlie Guiteau.

Political shallowness is exactly the point, and hence the subtitle of this post, “A Monument to the Politically Crazy”. Garfield was killed for no reason other than some whackjob took offense over a political process. There was no other reason! Sure, Guiteau also felt slighted for not getting the patronage job he wanted, but he also knew killing the president would result in him being hanged! There was no purpose to it, whatsoever. Just the total waste of a life, and the lost potential of a President. I think Garfield was on his way to being a very good President when he was shot, but we’ll never know that now.

Soccer Riot or Election Day? (http://www.thetimes.co.uk)

Crazy: Then and Now

Charlie Guiteau was a political nut-job. He was so fixated on his own faction that he took it upon himself to murder a president. He wasn’t fixated on a cause, but on a team. How shallow is that? But let’s look at this madness: this is exactly the type of bent most politically-minded Americans have today! How many people only vote for their own political party? How much punditry on 24-hour cable news, talk radio, or the blogosphere is really “our team is great, the other team sucks”? Listen carefully to what goes on in today’s popular media outlets, you’ll see this to be true most of the time. We are all being trained to be Charlie Guiteaus: not concerned with the facts or philosophies of governance, but wholly concerned about our “team” beating the other “team”?

None of this is good, none of this is wise. We need to stop playing team politics, and start paying real attention to real issues and the real results of our decisions, before we all end up crazy like Charlie Guiteau.

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Links:

James A. Garfield National Historic Site

How Our Partisan Loyalties Are Driving Polarization

Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield <– an excellent book and my key source for this post.

Google map

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