Sunday, April 24, 2016

Travelogue 694 – April 24
Cry for Change
Part Four

Mr. Levin was a prolific writer. In between prodigious amounts of copy for his newspapers, in the same year he led rioters into Catholic neighbourhoods in Philadelphia, and the same year he first ran for Congress, in 1844, Mr. Levin delivered a lengthy lecture about temperance at Lafayette College. He told the story of a British author famous in Levin’s youth, a man who Levin felt had betrayed his promise and gone bad, giving in to the corruption of alcohol and gambling, eventually committing suicide. He doesn’t mention that the poor man, age 52 by that time, was escaping a painful illness. Nor that the author spent his final years in Paris collecting fine art and appeared to have enjoyed life to the fullest. The stripped down morality tale was enough for Levin, who found such quantities of political fodder in America’s Puritanism

He says, early in his essay, ‘It is in the daring character of genius, that we behold at once, the grandeur of its conceptions, and the imbecility of its virtue.’ If we allow, for one generous moment, a small share of genius to our own Mr. Levin, then we may see a certain prescience in his verdict. It’s clear he believed in his genius, and he was quite unaware of the lack of virtue there. Perhaps that’s why he clothed it in such heavy-handed morality.

He had a genius for moving the crowds with inflammatory words. He moved them to violence. He moved them to vote for him.

It can be instructive to see what the loud mouth does with power once he gets it. Sometimes we shrug, and we figure it makes little difference who wins office.

Mr. Levin rode his wave of nativist emotion all the way to Washington, becoming representative in the House for Pennsylvania’s First District in Philadelphia. He served three terms there, seeming to manage the electorate back home much better than he did his colleagues. He had cobbled together a new party, called – awkwardly in hindsight – the Native Americans. His platform was simple, lengthening the naturalization process and requiring that only native-born Americans may run for office.

His methods among voters didn’t work as well among politicians. His style at the podium in the House of Representative was to rant and harangue. It didn’t play so well. He denounced the Pope at the podium, and the Representatives were embarrassed. He shouted repeatedly about naturalization and about foreigners, until colleagues were perplexed. Representative Chipman from Michigan asked for the record, ‘Who are the Native Americans … but those who derived their very existence from foreigners?’

After another impassioned denunciation of Jesuit plots, a fellow Representative from Pennsylvania commented, ‘I do not know whether my colleague ever saw a Jesuit.’

Levin never quite got the hang of politics. He sensed that he needed to court Southern colleagues, calling the abolitionists ‘disunionists’. He supported the Mexican-American War, which opened up slave territory, while opposing expansion to the West. Of course, the sad truth was that his support for the Mexican-American War was really about going to war with a Catholic regime.

Any progress he had made wooing Southerners, and it wasn’t much, he torpedoed when he argued with typical vehemence against states’ rights in the instance of naturalization, citizenship, and the vote. These were Federal prerogatives, he insisted. Southerners were disgusted with him..

Mr. Levin’s early efforts to form a national party and field presidential candidates, presaging the more successful Know Nothings of the mid-1850s, he again spoiled with the exercise of his unique charms. When the New York delegates insisted that the viability of any party relied upon the votes of foreign-born Americans, he resisted. He quibbled over the name of the party, insisting on ‘Native American’. Delegate attendance at subsequent conventions dwindled. The cause stagnated until the 1850s.

By 1850, Mr. Levin had used up the good will back home, and he did not win re-election. He had accomplished precious little in three terms. Six years later, he was pulled from the stage at a political rally, driven to fits of rage by the new Republican Party. He didn’t survive to see the presidency of Mr. Lincoln, a colleague from the Thirtieth Congress, during Mr. Levin’s second term. Mr. Lincoln had served only one term.

History adds one final touch of irony to Mr. Levin’s story. In 1880, twenty years after his passing, Mr. Levin’s widow and son converted to Catholicism.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Travelogue 693 – April 22
Cry for Change
Part Three

I’m not entirely awake. The first wind in my eyes bring tears. I pedal very slowly as I get going, so early. The first stretch as I pedal away from home is the canal that curves beside the old train track, describing an arc from our block of flats over to the Sparta Stadion. At the stadium I have to abandon the peace of the canal and its grassy verges, its birdsong, in order to join the busy road and cross over the little Schie on its big bridge.

I realized with some sadness, as I awoke, that the blackbird who had been serenading us at sunrise had moved. That little bird had been the spirit of early spring. I would see him as I left the house. He would be perched in the tree in the first quadrangle of the complex. Or he would stand on the roof just where the brick road passes underneath a bridging section of the building.

It feels like a sad morning for other reasons. Yesterday’s sun has given way to clouds. The temperatures are supposed to drop again in the coming days. Maybe the sensation of spring’s first days will attract the blackbird back.

Yesterday Prince died. Why do we feel the loss of celebrities personally? Clearly they represent our younger selves, reflecting back to us the memories of youth. Musicians captured the spirit of one age or another in our precious lives. The experiences and feelings ‘shared’ with them make for personal feelings. But then, suddenly we care. He died so young. He had his own story.

I remember my impressions of the boy who made ‘Purple Rain’. He seemed the plucky boy from Minneapolis, the weird boy so sure of himself he never wavered. He forced you to acknowledge his talent. And he knew he had it.

The talent was the beginning and the end. Prince was all music. The rest of the show, the tauntings with madness and perversity, that was fun, but it could only enhance or elaborate the music.

But weren’t we examining the history of the American demagogue? It’s a proud and strange history. Whereas in Prince’s case the message was the music and the rest was florid show, in the demagogue’s case the message was relative, and it was made to serve the madness and the perversity.

In the case of Lewis Charles Levin, the madness overtook him. He died younger than Prince, leaving this life in 1860 while housed in the Philadelphia Hospital for the Insane. It was his second stay there. The first was after a collapse during 1856 presidential campaign. He had delivered a frantic speech, attacking John C. Frémont, the first Republican, and he had been pulled from the stage by Frémont partisans. Soon afterward he was committed to the hospital’s care.

This was only the final manifestation of a career in madness. It really gets going in May, 1844, when he was the prime mover in a series of riots in Philadelphia that left people murdered and whole neighbourhoods burned to the ground. By the end of the same year, he had been elected to Congress. He was to serve three futile terms, a marginalized figure in the House, harping continuously on his one issue, never taken seriously by his colleagues.

Levin had found his one great idea. The Pope was orchestrating an attack on American democracy, and the Irish immigrants were the Pope’s foot soldiers. Most delusions have a few facts to prop them up, and it is true that Levin had been frustrated by the party machinery that dominated politics in his day, that shut the door to the many of the young and ambitious. And it was true that immigrants were a pawn in the political game. The Democrats were especially adept at herding fresh immigrants into the polls during critical elections.

The disaffected young Turks of the 1830s and 40s turned to working through the penny press, newly popular and growing powerful in the U.S. Levin made the Daily Sun into his vehicle for relentless nativist rant. And the topic of the moment was the Bible.

The Catholics of the city didn’t object to Bible study in the schools. They just wanted the freedom to read from the Catholic Bible rather than the King James. Our stalwart Jewish Puritan led the charge against this impertinence. He painted the Catholic protest as somehow anti-Bible. He organised rallies and he practiced his oratorical flourishes. He led expeditions into Catholic neighbourhoods, and reported on the carnage afterward in his paper, defending the nativist against all charges of aggression. It was always self-defense. It was always indicative of the vulgar character of the immigrant.

Over the summer of 1844 this turned into a campaign for office.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Travelogue 692 – April 20
Cry for Change
Part Two

My nose is sore. It feels as though there may have been a brush fire run through my lungs. But I still rise to face the day. I know I am recovering. The skies aren’t as promising as they were. There are more clouds, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not raining. At this hour, the clouds are tinged with rose. It’s warmer.

When it’s spring, people pull their bikes out of storage. I have more traffic to contend with. As I take the traffic circle by St. Willibrord’s on Beukelsdijk, I have to be careful not to run into a mom and her baby. The baby looks to be one year-old. He is merrily riding behind mom, talking to himself. Mom is keeping up a very good pace. I let them pass.

I take a minute to admire St. Willibrord’s again. It’s one of my favourites. There’s something old world about it, even though it only dates back to the 1920s. The dark brick and patinaed spire invite a sensation of another time. These days the church seems to have been adopted by the Polish community in town.

Settled in at my café, I review the news quickly. Yesterday was the New York primary. Mr. Trump won the Republican primary, and I see that he found it a great ‘honour’ to vote for himself. His analysis of the contest with Mr. Cruz over New York State: ‘I’ve pretty much knocked the hell out of him.’ Yesterday I read that Mr. Trump was being sued for libel. He called a fellow Republican a ‘dummy’. They say this is America’s demagogue of the moment. I wonder if he realizes the great tradition he is heir to.

‘I confess that I am an agitator,’ said Lewis Charles Levin about himself. ‘What storms are to the atmosphere - what tempests to the ocean - the agitator is to the political world.’

By the end of the 1830s, Mr. Levin had settled in Philadelphia. Like many young and ambitious lawyers, he started his long crusade for prominence with writing, speaking, and ‘agitating’. He was to repeat often in later life that all great achievements originated from one idea. He was to have a few of those in his public life.

His first great idea was temperance, the fight against booze. Liquor was the most dangerous vice in the young republic, corrupter of democracy. Interestingly, Mr. Levin extended the crusade to the theatre. Theatre inflamed the passions and corrupted youth. He had become the protector of America’s Puritan tradition.

He did discover a wonderfully nineteenth century angle to a seventeenth century morality. People were driven to drink by poverty, he said, and he ranted against the wealthy capitalist class. ‘The oppressions of avarice lead to intemperance as a refuge from avarice,’ he wrote.

Ultimately, it should seem no surprise that he found the party system culpable, and particularly those who were holding power. They were invested in the system, and they were invested in drink. Political offices were filled by candidates chosen in the back rooms of ‘groggeries’, as he called them. Mr. Levin was to set his sights higher.

When he moved to Philadelphia, Mr. Levin had given up law. He had bought out a small newspaper, the Temperance Advocate, and made it his voice and his issue. After only a few years, he sold that paper and bought the Daily Sun. The rhetoric took a new turn, became more ambitious. The issue became nativism. There was a plot afoot, a plot originating in Rome.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Travelogue 691 – April 18
Cry for Change
Part One

It’s spring. I’m sick. I’ve spent the weekend dragging myself out of bed because there were things to do, and then retreating to bed once I have given an honest and failed effort. I cough up quantities of yellow stuff. I feel cold all the time.

Outdoors, my favourite type of weather has taken over the skies, light winds and high clouds breaking up bright fields of blue. The air is fresh. There is just a remnant of winter chill. The clouds release the occasional misty shower, even when the sun is shining. It’s nearly impossible for me to stay still and rest in bed.

I’m on the mend, but exhausted. I’ve made it out of the house early. As I cycled into the city centre, the sun was a bright orange ball of light just risen above the horizon, perfectly framed by the buildings ahead. I enjoy the ride thoroughly. I believe life is worth living. And I arrive in no real shape to work. I’m going to push myself, anyway, though my body aches and shivers.

Glancing through Facebook first, I see that we need to be demanding change again. In the final weeks of primary season we must be strident. Everybody loves Bernie’s ideas, but Hillary folks question his ability to lead. Bernie supporters respond with the cry for change. Don’t compromise. Make change.

It’s hard to keep up with. I suppose as I get older, four years doesn’t seem that long a time. And the urgent calls for change every four years are taxing. We know the only constant is change and all that, but it’s sobering to be reminded every four years how far we’ve fallen, how radical any healing will have to be. According to Ted Cruz, we have to wipe out whole branches of government, including the IRS, switch to the gold standard, build more fences against the scary people out there. Bernie seems like a milquetoast compared to the Republican front-runners.

Well, who is going to miss the IRS? We all still hurt from the April 15th bleedings. It is a pleasant fantasy, imagining all the nasty tax men packing up the stuff from their desks, adjusting their glasses, trying to exit the building with dignity. But then the street lamps start going out, one by one, and no one is picking up the garbage. The dead start walking.

While studying the Know Nothing movement of the mid-nineteenth century, I realized the party was like a training camp for young orators. During the period between the passing of the Revolutionary generation and the Civil War, America was a laboratory for democracy. (See de Tocqueville.) It was a golden age of oratory. Its best exemplars might be Webster, Lincoln and Douglas. But of course there were hundreds of others, struggling to capture the attention of the crowd.

This fertile soil produced some odd blooms. One interesting character was the virulent anti-immigrant campaigner who became the first Jewish member of Congress.

Lewis Charles Levin was a native of Charleston. His path almost crossed that of young John C. Frémont, who started college in Charleston just as Levin was graduating from college in Columbia, South Carolina. But the young firebrand Levin moved on to teach in Mississippi, where he was quickly ejected for participating in a duel. Legend has it that Jefferson Davis was his second. Levin practiced law in Maryland and Kentucky, and eventually came to ground in Philadelphia. Here he started building his reputation as an orator. His first issue, interestingly, was not nativism.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Travelogue 690 – April 8
To Be an Immigrant

I’m meeting with Jan early in the morning. He has an idea that I would benefit from some office space. It seems as though he’s always in the market for a better deal. The eye for the deal is a part of the Dutch character, they say. Jan keeps a finger on the pulse of real estate in this town. He wants to show me a space that has come recently available in my neighbourhood. He thinks I could share it with a friend of his, Rene.

It turns out the space is in one of the three landmark towers in Marconiplein. These three blocks of white stone with square black windows mark my neighbourhood in the west of Rotterdam for kilometres in all directions. They were built in 1975, designed by a Chicago firm.

The realtor leads us into the first tower. It’s eerily empty. I had no idea that it had been emptied recently. This tower used to be the home of some gemeente, or city government, offices. Now the building is gutted. The realtors are filling the place floor by floor, so we’re only shown offices on the first floor. Jan is thorough. He asks many questions, walking the circuit of the floor imperiously, peeking in every corner. The windows are dusty. They look out over dusty roofs of the ground floor foyer. Jan sniffs at this. He says it’s worth waiting until they’re renting on higher floors, where there is a real view.

He’s been talking to the realtor in Dutch, of course. I listen. My Dutch is equal to following about half of the chatter.

I’ve lived overseas for over twelve years now. The day to day in another language is fun, and then it’s tiring. What it never is, is easy. Especially for someone coming to it in mid-life. You never move lazily through the day, drifting through conversations as though they were pleasant scents in the marketplace. Dialogue is work. You listen with concentration. Speaking is like vigorous exercise. It can be exhilarating, if the mind is clicking. But when the mind is slow, the work of speech is painful.

This is how life as an expat ticks along. I’m no refugee. I didn’t row any rafts to get here. I’m escaping no persecution worse than the hectoring despair that speaks in Donald Trump’s voice. I’m rescued from nothing worse than the grim pranks that America business plays on its workers.

And yet, as I watch Europe struggle with its bad immigration dreams, and fitfully act out against the strangers among her children, I can’t help but feel targeted. I am an immigrant, after all. I fight for my right to be here, a battle fought with lots of paperwork. And it costs, even in the fees levied when I misread a tax notice. We receive many mysterious letters from the city, and often they are delivering one unexpected expense or another. And sometimes you’re too tired for the effort of deciphering.

After meeting with Jan, I have to stop by our daycare. There has been a glitch with the paperwork. The administrator there wants to explain in Dutch. I encourage her to. I drop one word then another. She sees the strain in my eyes, and she begins to switch gradually to English, first with English words in Dutch sentences, and finally all English words in Dutch order. I don’t fight it. I know how hard it is to slow down in your own language. It took me years as a teacher and an expat to learn how to speak English for the foreigner, the basic syntax, the simplified vocabulary, the rounded enunciation, giving every vowel it due and making sure my words don’t slur together. It’s asking a lot for people to tailor their mother tongue for the visitor from far away.

So this is the life of the immigrant. It has is rewards. It is rarely dull. But sometimes you long for a dull day.

The Dutch voted against the Ukraine the other day, in a test of a new referendum system. Collect enough signatures, and you can call a popular vote. You can be sure that no one has the charisma to collect four hundred thousand signatures over an obscure economic treaty with a minor European power like the Ukraine. It was a referendum about the E.U., another measure of the water temperature as Brussels sinks into the sea, abandoned by all high-minded principle. It stands accused of heavy-handed bureaucracy. It stands accused by proxy for all the problems that have discomfited Europeans at home, economic crisis and austerity, civil war in Syria, the unrelenting ill will of Mr. Putin, and a long list of other things that have required patience and a charitable spirit for one or two too many years. And so we say no to Ukraine, and in doing so, strangely, aligning with Mr. Putin’s will.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Travelogue 689 – April 2
After the War

Carrying on, following the Republican Party through its early days, through the war that they had provoked and they had won, we do come to the third presidential candidate, only the third, though it feels like the difference of a century since the party could be led by the freewheeling mountain man and gold-rush privateer, John C. Frémont. There had been much blood spilt, a long war persecuted brutally, leaving half the country broken and burnt. The bitter and the vanquished were to be re-integrated into the union. Poor Mr. Lincoln had to be sacrificed. There was a pall like smoke over the capital.

The years that produced the first candidate, Mr. Frémont, were dust. The years that made him were the optimistic 1840s, the years of Manifest Destiny and the Mexican-American War. Our third candidate was also formed by those years. He fought bravely in Mexico. But notably he was to say many years later that the Mexican-American War was ‘one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.’ He opined that this war was a land grab in order to expand American slavery. The Civil War was a natural consequence.

That’s a surprising variety of honesty from a political man. And surprisingly specific. We’ve come a long way.

After Lincoln, there was to be one last Democratic president of the pre-war mould. He was an accident, the product of Lincoln’s desire to create a National Union government. Andrew Johnson was the only Southern senator to stand with the North, and he was rewarded by a last-minute inclusion on the ticket in 1864. A month after becoming vice-president, he was president.

Mr. Johnson didn’t do so well. He was stubborn. He was sympathetic toward Southern leadership. He was against civil rights for the freed slaves. And he had a few fatal flaws competing for primacy, his drunkenness, his rages, his inability to pull off a coherent speech. His inaugural speech, delivered just before Lincoln’s in 1864, was such a shocking failure that he hid from public view for weeks.

When half a million people die in civil war, not in a war against dangerous foreigners, there needs to be more than healing afterward. There needs to be some reason for it. There needs to be an effect achieved by the fighting, or there needs to be change. Johnson was all for the healing, and not so active in seeking change. He obstructed the Republicans, and they responded with impeachment. They didn’t succeed in ousting him. Mr. Johnson stayed in office for the duration of his term, to delay with petty dog-fights, to tour the country making outrageous speeches. The Democrats passed him over in 1868.

It could be that Mr. Johnson sealed the fate of the Democrats in presidential politics for a while. With exception of Grover Cleveland, the Republicans were to own the White House until Woodrow Wilson’s election. More accurately, until Franklin Roosevelt was able to redefine the party system. In 1868, it was going to be Ulysses S. Grant.

Jumping to the today’s Republican Party, I see that Mr Trump is falling from grace. And it was never going to be his ‘Know-Nothing’ comments against immigrants. It was going to be his misogyny. He publishes insinuations about his opponent’s wife. He says abortions should be punished. There are a few more women than Arab terrorists, and they vote. The candidate grumbles that he’s being persecuted.

We’ve come a long way since 1868.