Monday, March 28, 2016

Travelogue 688 – March 28
It Ain’t Easy Being a Know-Nothing
Part Three

The election of 1856 was as messy, and as nonsensical, as any of them. The slogan for the new Republican Party was ‘Free Speech, Free Press, Free Soil, Free Men, Frémont and Victory!’ Free Man was the operative concept there, I guess, the party being anti-slavery, but really there’s just something that rings in the word ‘free’.

Words do get tired. I read recently that polls suggest democracy is losing popularity among ‘millennials’. (I’m not sure which I find more frightening, that we call people millennials, or that we treat democracy as a brand name, subject to focus groups.) It’s a word. It’s a slogan. Kids rebel. But the same article points out how very savvy the same generation is when it comes to the mechanisms of democracy, or whatever we want to call it in the re-branding. The youngsters campaign as vigorously as their granddads when it comes to Bernie.

In 1856 the Democrats accused Frémont of being a Catholic (because of his French-Canadian roots). If the Democrats played the Catholic card, what were the anti-immigrant Know Nothings saying? Did Mr. Fillmore talk about walls and internment camps, registers for Catholics (all ideas from the high-minded 2016 campaign, referring to Catholic Mexicans and all Muslims)? It’s doubtful he did. For one thing, candidates didn’t tour and didn’t make speeches in those days. They stayed quietly in the background, a practice Mr. Trump might resurrect with some success. For another, Mr. Fillmore didn’t actually buy into his party’s agenda. He was more interested in preserving the Union, and using the new party as a platform.

I imagine it’s hard to run on such a tight agenda, anyway. How much can one say about those nasty immigrants and how they gotta go? It ain’t easy being a Know Nothing.

So the first Republican Party candidate for president was not the calm and deliberate and melancholy Lincoln, the great compromiser. Instead, it was the visionary and hot-tempered John C. Frémont, illegitimate son of a Quebecois fugitive. Maybe a Catholic!

By 1842 John C. Frémont was making his name exploring the Rockies, with Kit Carson at his side, and writing accounts for the newspapers. He was destined to lead five expeditions west, looking to forge viable routes to the west coast. In the 1840s he settled in California. He continued to be the populist voice of the Western pioneer. He gave the name Golden Gate to the watery stretch between San Francisco and Marin County, where the famous bridge would be built. He quickly became one of the state’s first two senators, and then its first presidential candidate, (becoming first among four Republican presidential candidates from California, followed by Hoover, Nixon, and Reagan).

Frémont would have said he was also the state’s first governor. During the Mexican-American War, he was briefly appointed military governor. When it turned out someone else had also been appointed at the same time, and by someone with more authority, Frémont would not stand down. This led to disciplinary action.

There was another unfortunate incident during the war, in which Frémont ordered the murder of three innocent Mexicans, telling Kit Carson they had no room for prisoners. His troubled war record became an issue during the election of 1856. It presaged his Civil War troubles.

But Frémont bounced back. Drummed out of the Army, he invested in land in California, discovered gold, and became a rich man. By 1856, he seems to have become the obvious man to lead the anti-slavery coalition. Two other fringe anti-slavery parties nominated him before the Republicans did.

Later, during the Civil War, he served the new Republican administration as command of the Army’s Department of the West. It became clear that securing the whole Mississippi River was going to be the core objective for the Department of the West. And first came Missouri. Frémont made two big decisions early on. He decided to test an officer whose reputation was less than sterling, a drunk and a taciturn man named Ulysses. He saw in Ulysses a strength of will that he saw this war would require. Ulysses went on to become the Union hero of the war, and afterward the third Republican candidate for president.

Frémont also rashly declared martial law in Missouri, and issued an emancipation proclamation. Slaves of rebels would be freed. Lincoln asked him to rescind the order, fearful it would tip the balance of sentiment against the North. Frémont refused. His wife, Jessie, went to Washington to argue with Lincoln. It didn’t help. Frémont was relieved of command, and the order was overturned. Two years later, Lincoln issued his own version of the order, applied to all the southern states.

And so it goes. Frémont still had a few battles left in him in 1862. He ran against Lincoln in 1864, representing the more radical abolitionists. In the late ‘70s, he served as governor of Arizona for President Rutherford B. Hayes. But his fortunes were in decline. He had invested in the railroads in the 60s, and had lost a lot of money. He and Jessie moved to New York City, and the man who made his name writing about the West died in New York City in 1890, poor and nearly forgotten. The party he led in its first presidential race had dominated the country for thirty years by then. It called itself the party of Lincoln.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Travelogue 687 – March 27
It Ain’t Easy Being a Know-Nothing
Part Two

There were three candidates for president in the general election of 1856. Two were to become candidates for ‘worst president ever’.

The Know Nothings bring their message of Popish conspiracy to the presidential race in 1856, nominating former president Millard Fillmore to take them to the White House. Fillmore was nominated while he was out of the country, and he wasn’t particularly anti-immigrant. His daughter had attended a Catholic school. He was against slavery, but was willing to compromise. The wrenching debate over the Compromise of 1850 occurred during his previous presidency, the debate to decide whether slavery would expand into territories won during the Mexican-American War, including California and Texas.

It was always going to be the issue of slavery that shaped the election of 1856, not the evils of immigration. And immigration wasn’t Fillmore’s reason for running. The Democrats had become too much the party of the South. And the new Republicans were a party of the North. Fillmore saw the Know Nothings’ American Party as an opportunity to build a truly national platform.

The Democrats make a national run, but in full knowledge that the upstart anti-slavery party, the Republicans, were probably going to take the North. It would be a race for electoral votes. And the upstart new anti-immigration party, the Know Nothings, would run interference.

Being the only party running that existed in 1852, the Democrats should have done better in 1856. The two upstart, one-issue parties took a total together of 54% of the popular vote.

The real story here is, of course, the third party, the Republicans, and the third candidate, one John C. Frémont.

Frémont is rarely cited as the first face of the Republican Party. It’s nice to be able to hold Lincoln up as your party standard. But Lincoln wasn’t even among the final candidates for nomination in 1856.

Frémont was something of a celebrity in his day, a charismatic man, a success story who made his fame in the Wild West as explorer and military man. He was a shrewd man, without doubt strong, and impetuous. He’s a figure who pops up in rather a surprising number of contexts in our nation’s story, mid-nineteenth century.

Mr. Frémont was born in Georgia, born out of wedlock to parents who had created some scandal with their union. His father was Quebecois. He had escaped from a British prison and had headed south. He died before young John was grown. A benefactor helped John to study at college. There the boy studied mathematics and natural sciences, but he was too impetuous to finish college. He dropped out to tutor math on a Navy sloop. Later he became second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, started up with surveying teams in the west, popping up with Joseph Nicollet in Minnesota in 1838 and 1839.

In 1841, he married Jessie, daughter to a powerful senator from Missouri, who was a strong advocate of Manifest Destiny, America’s right to settle the whole continent. Frémont’s destiny was to become wrapped up in this crusade. His explorations in the West in the coming years were to be motivated by the hope of finding a route across the Rockies for the railroads.

Jessie was to become a formidable politico in her own right. During the Civil War, when Frémont earned a reprimand from the president, freeing slaves in Missouri, it was Jessie who traveled to Washington and took up her husband’s case. She was a committed abolitionist, and she wasn’t about to see her husband disciplined by a Republican president for freeing slaves. In later years, Jessie became a popular author, writing volumes about their experiences in the American West.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Travelogue 686 – March 26
It Ain’t Easy Being a Know-Nothing
Part One

When I was in Minnesota, the memory of Trump’s silly pronouncements about Muslims and Mexicans was still fresh, so of course there were some rote references in the press to the Know Nothing movement of the nineteenth century.

Yes, even in the 1840s and 1850s there were angry Americans. Big changes were afoot. Andrew Jackson had shut down the national bank, and fanned the flames of distrust between east and west, north and south. The economy was volatile. The two-party system had collapsed, and the nation had yet to find a viable opposition to Jackson’s populist Democratic Party.

Angry people are happiest when there is someone to blame. Then, as now, immigrants were easy targets. At that time, the undesirables were the Irish and the Germans. There was a special place in bigots’ hearts for the Catholics. There was talk of a world conspiracy led by the Pope, analogous to the more recent theories of secret Jewish hegemony.

Sadly, the name ‘Know Nothings’ was no triumph of an imaginative critic, no casual insult from Mark Twain or Daniel Webster. The party’s roots were in secret societies, and new recruits were instructed to say, ‘I know nothing,’ when asked about the party. I can’t help thinking of Sergeant Schultz in ‘Hogan’s Heroes. Sorry.

The Know Nothings grew powerful enough to gain control of the Massachusetts legislature, and to field a candidate for president in the fateful year of 1856. Their candidate was former president Millard Fillmore. He was nominated while he was traveling overseas, recovering from the death of his wife in 1853 and his daughter in 1854.

Fillmore had already been president. He had inherited the office in 1850, as vice president under Zachary Taylor, he of delicate stomach, who died only a year after assuming office. Fillmore has since been ranked as one of the worst presidents in our history by committees of historians. His party, the Whigs, passed him over in 1852.

Fillmore returned from Europe in 1856, and he accepted the nomination, joining in one of the most interesting elections in our history. He came in third, carrying 21.6% of the popular vote and winning Maryland.

The winner in the election was James Buchanan, destined to join Fillmore among the ranks of worst presidents ever. Buchanan won with no majority, with only 45% of the popular vote, but carrying 19 states out of 31.

The president elected in 1856 was going to deal with the divisions over slavery. This conflict had already become violent Kansas. The Supreme Court was due to deliver its opinion on whether the federal government could prohibit slavery in new territories.

It might have seemed that the Democrats, with their generation-long tradition of compromise with southerners, and Buchanan, in particular, known as a ‘doughface’, a northerner with southern sympathies, would have been well-placed to solve the problem. He wasn’t.

Buchanan was a meticulous lawyer, and he believed that the spirit of the Constitution was a spirit of restraint. He recognized severe limits to the power of the federal government. While he believed it was illegal for states to secede, he believed the federal government had no right to prevent it. He wanted the slavery issue to be decided by the Court. The Dred Scott decision was delivered days after his inauguration, and he thought the matter settled. Congress had no right to prohibit slavery in new territories.

As his term in office ended in 1861, seven states had seceded, and Fort Sumter was awaiting reinforcements. At first Buchanan opposed reinforcements, and then he found Congress unwilling to grant him power to act. He gave up. He welcomed Lincoln to the White House with a much quoted expression of relief.

It was probably Fillmore’s entry into the race that allowed Buchanan’s election. Without his candidacy, the US might have seen its first Republican president four years earlier than it did, and that man would not have been Abraham Lincoln.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Travelogue 685 – March 19
The Primaries

Baby is happy to see me. She usually is. She smiles at me when I come in, first with open joy, and then in a bashful way. I pick her up, and I lift her up over my head, and she opens her mouth in a big unvoiced laugh. She spreads her arms like she’s flying.

Her excitement lasts only a few minutes. She’s right back into her life. Her life now seems to centre around finding creative ways to bump her head. She wears her mother out twisting and turning, and with her new-found ability to crawl. She has a nice and wide play area, free of most perils, but Baby always wants to crawl under the coffee table, her head centimetres from the underside of the table. We carry her back to the open play area, and then she pulls herself into a standing position at the window sill. If we don’t watch carefully, she’ll topple over. We sit her down, and she crawls toward the table. She likes the sound the wooden tiles on the floor make when she slaps them.

Baby requires novelty. Her toy today is the black plastic clip I wear around my pants leg when I cycle. It makes a funny clacking noise when you tap it and the ends clap together. She waves it around, and she smacks it against the floor. She brings it to her mouth. She wants to chew on it, and slobber on it, and I’m forced to take it away. She gets ready to cry. When I make a show of taking a big drink from my water bottle, and really enjoying it, I know she’ll demand to have it.

I reflect a lot on the innocence of babies, how readily they accept being picked up, dressed and bathed and moved around. I reflect on how Baby will grow to rebel against these ministrations. This same innocence grows into independence and contrariness. That’s the human machine.

While I was in Minnesota, I caught up with the progress of the party primaries in this election year. Every time I went to the gym, the ubiquitous TVs were broadcasting ‘analysis’.

It seemed as though the outrage about Trump was cresting. Mitt Romney denounced him. Every discussion about politics began and ended with him, Trump as cautionary tale, Trump as omen, Trump as impending disaster.

I was surprised to discover how detached I had become. American politics used to inspire hope and fury in me, increasingly the latter. I had no defences against the circus. I left America during the Bush II era, and I was so relieved. I was ready to hear another set of news.

Friends in Minnesota were ranting about the Trump phenomenon. They were upset. They were citing items of evidence that things were extreme. Protesters were being beat up at Trump rallies. He was free with bigoted and angry utterances, and to everyone’s astonishment, he didn’t correct in the face of press criticism. His base stayed firm. His appeal grew.

I shrugged, and I wondered. I thought we had all become accustomed to this, the uncompromising hunger for authoritarianism among quite a lot of Americans. It’s like the temptation of vertigo, the feeling you might jump when you stand at the edge of a great height. This movement has more and more appeal every decade, crowds gathering in their longing for brutal simplicity, gathering to cry out for the dictator who will restore democracy. The shock manifested by liberals seems as much an expression of American exceptionalism as the bland flag-waving of the right. It couldn’t happen here.

What has been most engaging for me is the strange characters these crowds turn up. They have an endearing soft spot for the buffoons. They gravitate to the likes of Reagan, Quayle, Bush Junior, Ventura, Palin, and Trump. Who can’t appreciate the aesthetics? I’ve long maintained that Palin is a national treasure. Her endorsement speech for Trump was pure gold. What other nation has a public figure like Sarah? What a wonderful mass sublimation. Trump himself, I can take or leave. He’s a bit too vulgar, too ready a reflection of the hairy beast in the soul of his followers. The ugliness overtakes the clownishness, and maybe that’s our sign that it’s time for a know-nothing win. Hard to say.

We’re always fascinated by the spectre of Hitler and his perverse cabal. But isn’t the more interesting image that of the crowds, the innocence in their eyes, the child-like belief in the greatness of their nation? This boisterous service to history must trump all other concerns, all the matters that establishment types drone on about, this annoying complexity they moralize about. The crowd at the Nazi rally believes they can shout down complexity.

Wouldn’t it be nice? Sometimes it feels good to be angry. The world does seem simpler for a moment. The problems might be dissolved in righteousness. It’s too bad that history doesn’t offer too many examples of it working. Even angry actions have consequences. And then someone wants to bicker, something about details. He or she has another opinion. How annoying. The baby always grows up.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Travelogue 684 – March 13
Hour Off

Tomorrow I fly back to Europe. I’m thinking I’ll miss my early morning ritual at Peace Coffee. The opening baristas this morning are a pair of familiar faces. She has been working for years. She has an endearingly haughty manner. Her voice is radio perfect. She assumes a formal register, and she doesn’t look at me. When chatting with her colleagues she laughs. And her laugh also seems made for radio.

The other barista is outside setting up tables when I arrive. He says the time change has thrown him. He says he’s tired. He says he didn’t see the sun when he got up. He tells me this was Ben Franklin’s idea, Daylight Savings Time. It’s true. The old diplomat was ever the pragmatic. He measured the advantage in longer evenings by the candles that would be saved. But it took the era of mass war and rationing to adopt the strategy. We struggling nation would save electricity.

I’m a morning person, but I do enjoy the longer evenings. Winter feels like a host who is eager for you to leave. Spring is a welcoming back into life. You can stretch your legs a little, and enjoy. As often as not, I’m I bed before the light has left the sky. That makes for a sense of hope.

So I lose an hour overnight. At least this time I had some warning. Often, I am unaware it’s coming and find out during the following day of skewed schedules. Lately it seems I’m on the road when these time changes happen, compounding the jetlag. It becomes an additional variable in the continuous calculus of international travel. Most of my clocks are still on Dutch time, anyway. I don’t bother to change them They allow me to track the time in Holland, and tune into my wife’s and baby’s lives.

Since Europe doesn’t change for a few more weeks, I have in a sense already started my journey home. I’m one hour closer.

The male barista follows me indoors, and he is the one who serves my espresso. He serves it with a glass of sparkling water. And he says the water is fresh. It’s bubbling just fine today, he tells me with some pride. It’s a European tradition, he tells me. It’s the contrast that makes it work, the clean and crisp taste that washes the palate, standing against the rich and dark flavours of the coffee.

This barista tells me lots of things. He tells me about his musical selections in the morning. He’s a fan of the various screeching and crunching types of metal. He starts one day with a German a capella metal band. I’m amused.

He amuses everyone who comes in. He never stops talking during the hours I spend in the café. He tells stories and he jokes and he engages with the children, offering them stickers printed with the coffee shop brand. He tells the house all about his new bicycle. He tells us about the days he was a crane operator. He explores mythology with the old-timers. I’m admiring his energy, his good cheer.

I’m getting on a plane tomorrow. I will amuse myself with movies and podcasts, wishing I could sleep. Even though it will be night, I will watch out the window for Greenland. It’s a place made for meditation. I’ll wonder again how the poets did without having seen what I see out these windows. But still I won’t sleep. We will have abandoned the sun, casting ourselves over the eastern horizon. Still I won’t sleep.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Travelogue 683 – March 5
Dupont and Emerson

It’s been a blur of a week here in old Minnesota, devoted to work, and then to sleep. It’s one of those seasons in old Minnesota, longer than in other places, long weeks while the land lingers in between winter and spring, stepping carefully forward through slush. It’s a kind of twilight, a time of special light, a waiting.

I’m working, and I’m sleeping. When I work, the day starts before sunrise at Peace Coffee. I am watching sleepy people lining up for coffee from the vantage of my table at the back. The windows face east, and I am watching light creep into the Minnesota sky, making blue spaces between the branches of the bare trees. Espresso makes the computer screen flicker.

It’s midday in the office in Uptown, in the basement level one-room office with windows opening onto the asphalt of the parking lot in back of the building. The lights are fluorescent. We are solving puzzles. We are writing answers on chart paper. We are consulting computer screens. We are answering telephones. We make the hallway, dead carpet and windowless, resound with our voices.

Before the tired winter sun is done with the day, I’m already thinking about sleep. My body is still trying to shed my fever from last week, and it’s trying to shed the hours on the airplane, and the most mundane of daily tasks is feeling like a heavy weight.

I’m sleeping in Uptown, not so many blocks away from the office. I’m reliving my youth. AirBNB matched me with this house only half a block from an apartment from my past, where I spent three years sleeping on a futon in my tiny room in a shared two-bedroom place, a modest place stripped bare of adornment, furnished with necessity plus a TV. This was where I lived, writing my first play. This was where I lived when I started dating Leeza.

The house I’m staying in now is very characteristic of Uptown. As much as the district has changed along its main avenues, looking like a zoning attempt at carefree wealth, clean condos above bars that look like they were built to plans borrowed from South Beach, it all looks much the same on the side streets, Colfax, Dupont, Emerson, Fremont. The clapboard houses are as humble as they ever were. Inside, students and artists camp in dim lighting. I’m housed in a room in the front of one of these houses. The floorboards creak. The false ceilings are stained. The paint is peeling. The upstairs neighbours are cheerful young guys who stomp and laugh in the evenings. The room is simple enough, bare but for the idiosyncratic tiled fireplace, and the ancient carpet laid over the floorboards. The bed is extraordinarily comfortable. I happily retreat into its warmth to read as long as I can, while upstairs the cheerful boys tell jokes.

I’m awake at three. The house is silent. I creep to the bathroom, trying without success to be quiet. The substance of the building responds to its occupants, murmuring when they move, groaning under their weight.

The frost of the season lies undisturbed outside, touching things with its lingering chill. It has hours before sunlight. Nothing moves once I have stopped. The house rests again. Sleep is slow as time. I’m abandoned to daydreams in the cold night.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Travelogue 682 – March 1

I’m looking out the window on the flight over the Atlantic. We’re midway to America. I’m curious as ever about the bizarre landscape of Greenland. It’s so hard to put any human scale to it. I see glaciers, blue at their wrinkled edges. I see formations of rock like craters, like round heads of volcanoes, but buried shoulder-high in snow. There are a number of them, and many of them are broken open on one side, as though to allow a doorway. They look like natural amphitheatres. I imagine myself standing in the circle of stone, with walls of rock rising round me. How many hours to walk side to side of the crater?

Bob Dylan is singing in my earphones. He assures me there will be shelter from the storm. It’s a world of steel-eyed death, etc. ‘Come in, she said, I’ll give ya,’ and I’m examining worlds of ice. They are strangely inviting from this height. When I imagine it, I don’t account for the cold. I don’t account for the anxiety of true solitude.

I’ll give you shelter from the storm, I’m hearing, and I’m very moved. ‘Thank you,’ I whisper, fogging up the airliner window.

There was a time when I was first introduced to Bob Dylan. That would have been when I visited my brother during his time at university. I was just a kid, raised on my father’s Tin Pan Alley. I wondered why this Dylan man would record an album when he clearly couldn’t sing. My brother laughed. He insisted I keep listening, and I did come to appreciate the songs.

Now the music is so much a part of me that I wonder how it could be otherwise. How could it be that this one song wouldn’t move everyone? I find it more challenging to imagine the person who isn’t moved by Dylan than it is to imagine crossing the crater in Greenland.

Maybe it’s the fever from the weekend doing my thinking. If they all could be me, at just this moment, they would feel it, too. If they could remember those days when I was ten, and remember the reverence for vinyl in those days. If they could have gone to the beach with my brother and walked the boardwalk.

It occurs to me that I’ve just drawn a circle around the story of the 60s. If only they understood. If only they heard our music, they would find shelter from the storm.

But it didn’t happen. The bold idealism should have been rewarded. With all that energy, they should have broken through, discovered peace and love. But it’s still a world of steel-eyed death.

For kids who grew up in the shadow of the 60s, it seemed the stuff of classical tragedy. In history, they were just one more wave of idealists who were broken under the wheel of human failings. But we don’t live in history. They were my brothers. They were my heroes. Their songs were plugged into our emotions.

Bob was in the news recently. At age 74, he’s sold six thousand items from his own history to the University of Tulsa, notes and lyrics and poems, artwork and photos. His archive will be neighbour to a museum dedicated to his own hero, Woodie Guthrie, also in Tulsa.

With Bowie’s passing, we awaken again to the passage of time. We’ve been watching the parents of the Boomers go for some time now, those tough veterans of the Depression and of world war. But now must we brace for this, the passing of the ‘kids’ of the 60s?

Bob Dylan sings at the close of the film, and the film is another brilliant production on the part of Danny Boyle This one is about a Baby Boomer named Steve Jobs. The film is structured like a play, a tragedy worthy of Greek stylings, a story revolving around the tragic flaw of the hero.

Much has been made of this man Jobs, the stark merging in his character of vision and implacable ambition. He has become myth, and it’s right that he is paired with Dylan here. It’s a pairing that captures much about the riddle of the Boomer generation. Dylan made his mark before Jobs was ten. There is a call and response to their dreams and achievements.

Will it be Jobs who is the final measure of the generation, when history has had its say? The song of the 60s led somehow inevitably to this, the vision epitomized by Jobs, the system that would link minds around the world, the system that would change everything. Steel-eyed death still stalks, but it advertises by phone to children in Osaka and Milwaukee and Addis Ababa.

My eyes are on Greenland. My eyes are on the foggy ocean. My eyes are now on the Hudson Bay. The ice on the bay is cracked in patterns that look like roads. The white ice goes on for miles and miles, and I still see no people. I stare so long the bright white colour of the ice loses its value. Without its colour, is ice still ice? I’m sleepy, and many miles of it are hypnotizing. I could once again be over Arabia, flat as broken ice, approaching Dubai. I have been this way before.