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Posts Tagged ‘Ohio’

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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I just came back from my spring National Parks trip. With all the economic uncertainty, plus my need to pay off credit card debt (like the rest of America), I kept it small. Drove through upstate New York, then Ohio, across West Virginia, then home via Maryland. Hit eight more, albeit small, sites on the list, bringing the total to 185.  Still not quite halfway there.

During this trip, I also visited my two all-time favorite museums: the amazing National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio (about which I’ll post at a later time) ; and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.

Rock Hall

The poor Rock Hall doesn’t get a lot of respect. Some think it’s self-serving to a lot of rich, arrogant, rock egos. Others think it’s unfathomable that you could put the energy and rebelliousness of rock music into something as stuffy as a museum. Still others can’t get over the fact that non-rockers like the Bee Gees or Madonna have been inducted, while their favorite act (KISS or Journey or Emerson, Lake and Palmer or whoever) still aren’t in there.

Howlin WolfI love the place, absolutely love it, loved it from the beginning. I was there during the opening, 8-hour concert on Labor Day weekend in 1995, where I saw everyone from Chuck Berry to Johnny Cash to Dr. John to Aretha Franklin to Iggy Pop. That was a fantastic experience. The next day I saw James Brown sauntering through the crowd, surrounded by some of the biggest, scariest bodyguards imaginable, on his way into the Rock Hall. I’ve been back several times since, and love it more and more every time I go. For me, it goes beyond being a fan of rock music. My love of rock & roll dovetails nicely into my love of American history.

Most countries or cultures are defined by their art. For the Greeks, it’s architecture and epic tales. The Italians have religious iconography and works by Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. The French have Impressionism, the Germans and Slavs people have composers such as Beethoven, Tchaikovzky and Mozart. Africa, China, Japan, Polynesia, even the Native American tribes have unique art tied directly to their culture and their history. America has its own unique art form, developed straight from our culture and history: Rock & Roll.

Fats DominoRock & roll is uniquely American because of it’s “origin story”. Rock’s primary grandfather was The Blues. Political correctness aside, The Blues was the black man’s music. It’s basically a lament about hard times and suffering set to a quick-paced but rough tempo. The Blues was fostered in a segregated South and derives directly from music sung by plantation slaves. This is Part I of why Rock is uniquely American, it’s the only positive thing to ever come out of our slaveholding past. Without the caustic cauldron of atrocity known as antebellum slavery, and the emotional agony of Jim Crow, the genetic material of The Blues would not have been created. No Blues, no Rock.

Another grandparent of Rock & Roll was Folk music (and its close cousins called Country and Bluegrass). All three of these forms sprouted out of the barrenness of the Depression. Yes, the Depression affected lots of countries, not just the USA, but there was something special about America’s experience that led to the birth of these three forms of music. Maybe it was the rural nature of Depression-era America, maybe it was the unique experience of the Dust Bowl, maybe it was the influence of our unique take on the religious revival. Whatever it was, folk, country & bluegrass evolved as uniquely American styles.

Allman Brothers BandThen there’s Jazz. Jazz, in my view, represents the independent American mentality applied to music. People wanted to play what they wanted to play, and wanted to hear what they wanted to hear. It’s improv, blending, mixing things up, and doing what you want. It’s throwing away musical convention, just like we threw away monarchial convention. We tossed out the King and made our own government, then we tossed out musical conformity and made our own Jazz. It’s the Declaration of Indepence set to music.

All of rock’s “early influences” were masters of these forms of music: Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Louis Jordan, Elmore James. But it took something else, something more. It took the lightning strike known as Capitalism to give Rock & Roll life. It took people like Alan Freed and Ahmet Erteghun and Jerry Wexler to realize that money could be made, people who had the savvy to prop up firebrands like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis and make all this roughshod music palatable to the young masses and their disposable income. Only in America could art be turned into something so immensely popular, and therefore immensely profitable.

George ClintonRock has then been changed and modified and altered by so much more since then: the injustice of the Vietnam War draft, the poverty of inner cities, the rebellion of angsty white suburbanite teens, plus America’s penchant to abuse mind-altering substances …. All of these things are, again, uniquely attributable to the U.S. and the unique mix (or train wreck, if you prefer) of our culture.

Now I know some (er, most?) will shout back “but what about the Beatles or the Stones or Led Zepplin, asswipe? These are Brits who revolutionized rock!”. Well, yes, that’s true. But all of these bands will tell you themselves that they got into rock because of Muddy Waters, or Bo Diddly, or Buddy Holly. Besides, just as the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, so too is rock a music of immigrants. Artists from all over the world have morphed and shaped rock to suit their needs, and have influenced other artists in return. It’s a great melting pot of music styles and cultures.

I highly recommend going to the Rock Hall. It does a great job showing the continuing evolution of a great, rebellious art form, a form of music whose greatest contribution is giving convention the big middle finger.

[Only the picture of the Rock Hall is mine. The others are from allmusic.com, a great web site for music research. Copyrights apply in some cases, this is a not-for-profit blog so I think it’s OK here. I’m sure lawyers will call if it ain’t :-P.]

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Links:

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

allmusic.com

Looking for college credits?

Google map to RRHOFM

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Who Cares National Park

Poor Cuyahoga: the Park of No Love. The great national parks (Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Olympic, Acadia, all the others) have huge amounts of visitors and worldwide acclaim. They have spectacular geologies or magnificent trees or rare wildlife. Everyone knows their names, knows what they are about. But no one cares about a little strip of land on a forgotten river nestled between two Rust Belt cities, a little strip of land known as Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Brandywine FallsCuyahoga is a park that preserves a small valley cut in the Appalachian Plateau. The Cuyahoga itself is a meandering river, most notable for a series of canals used as transport in the late 18th to early 19th century (before railroads took over). It’s nice that preservationists lobbied to protect this patch of river. I believe that we should strive to protect all natural areas (not just those with spectacular flora, fauna, or geology) wherever possible.

The problem lies with putting this spot in the National Park System. If you listen to “park-o-philes”, like those on National Parks Traveler, Cuyahoga NP is the result of pork-barrel spending that most Americans heavily despise. I don’t know how to react to that. Usually pork projects only benefit those who win the contracts to build them. Sometimes these projects end up having no value to the community whatsoever, being proverbial white elephants until some future pork barrel project tears them down or repurposes them in an endless cycle of valueless taxpayer expenditures.

Everett Road Covered BridgeBut does government money spent on natural preservation count as “pork”? Many believe so. I don’t. See, I believe that natural preservation is the gift that keeps on giving. Natural lands help clean the air and water, and provide habitat for wildlife and plants. They also act as carbon sinks, something the world needs a lot more of right now. Parks also provide venues for recreation and a chance for urbanites and suburbanites to experience nature (something heavily needed in the manufacturing-laden cities of the Old Northwest Territories).

ButterflySome, especially those who want to profit off land development, think these “benefits” are a crock of tree-hugging bullshit. It’s just getting in the way of progress and economic development. But think about it: do we really need to carve up more of our fields & woodlands? Do we really need to divert more rivers or fill in more swamps in the name of “economic development”? Take a look around: everywhere you travel, you see abandoned properties, empty factories, vacant strip malls. Do we really need to pave over nature to build more crap, when we have thousands, if not millions, of already-paved land just sitting there, doing nothing? Couldn’t we, shouldn’t we, redevelop these existing stains on the landscape for economic development? Do we really need to make new stains? That’s what I think is bullshit.

Yeah, turning Cuyahoga into a National Park probably wasn’t the best use of taxpayer money, but at least there’s a stretch of green in the middle of Rust Belt America. I think it’s needed.

Beaver Marsh

[I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited Cuyahoga Valley. Pics are courtesy of the National Park Service. Actually, they have some pretty nice photos on their Cuyahoga website.]

[UPDATE: I visited Cuyahoga again since my original post. I now have some pics, located here.]

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Links:

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Benefits of Open Space Preservation: Land Trust Alliance

Citizens Against Government Waste 2008 Report (Dept. of Interior)

Google map to Cuyahoga Valley

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