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2014 Rock Hall Nominees

Last week, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame posted the nominees for induction into its 2014 class.

I’ve posted before about the Rock Hall. I love the place, and I think it’s actually important (many people don’t). I look at rock & roll as a uniquely American art form, something we should celebrate and protect. In the beginning, the Rock Hall was an affectation, but as rock’s founding fathers (and mothers) start to die off, and radio formats change, you can see the legacy and influence of rock & roll falling by the wayside.

When it comes to choosing who goes into the Hall, the RRHoF committee has their own criteria. I, being your average, over-opinionated human being, have my own. Here’s some thoughts about this year’s nominees. Note that the official rules say you can only pick five artists, so I had to make some hard choices.

The Bridge

www.rockhall.com It’s been said Jazz cheated on Big Band and had an illegitimate child with Blues, and named it Rock & Roll. Without the blues, there would be no rock. I’m a huge fan of good, quality blues acts, so I’m definitely partial on their entry into the Rock Hall.

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band filled a pretty big niche in rock history. Back in the 50’s, African-American blues artists like Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and Howlin’ Wolf were out doing their thing. Folks like Elvis Presley would take that music and put it into fast-paced, feel-good music for dance halls. But no one could ever claim Elvis was “the blues”. He basically stole blues music away from them, and turned it into Rock & Roll.

Paul Butterfield and his ilk did something different. They took that blues music and let it evolve into modern blues. They gave blues music a path into white-bread culture, where it would grow and foster great talents like Clapton, the Band, Neil Young, and others. Like the Missing Link in evolution, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band are an important part in the chain of modern blues music.

The Last Great Bluesman

StevieRayVaughan-2015-NomineeUnfortunately, modern blues really wouldn’t last. By the late 1980’s, blues was “corporatized” and full of bland, cookie-cutter blues artists. You couldn’t tell one young blues musician from another. Folks realized the blues was great music, but the heart was leached out of it. Perhaps the record companies did it, perhaps MTV did it, perhaps we just didn’t have anything to be “bluesy” about anymore. Life simply became to easy in this country (but not for everyone, more on that later).

There was one exception in this “post-modern blues” era, and that man was Stevie Ray Vaughn. Vaughn was different. He wasn’t fronting a blues cover band, he was an actual bluesman, and a damned good one at that. He had that hardship in his music, hardship that was felt through his tremendous guitar playing. Nowadays, blues music has been relegated to small-town clubs and nostalgic filler pieces between sets by major artists to show “they respect the past”. Stevie Ray Vaughn was the last memorable member in a long line of bluesmen, and for that, he deserves a place in the Rock Hall.

Hip-Hop Rocks the World

NWA WEBI’m not a big hip-hop enthusiast. I can take it in small doses, but it’s not really my kind of music. Which is fine: it’s not meant for me. It’s meant for the same folks the blues was meant for back in the 30’s, 40’s & 50’s: the downtrodden and the disposessed. It’s their outlet, their release, and it’s just as valid as anything else that’s come before it. It’s pure rebellion, just like Elvis was pure rebellion against stuffy concert halls, James Brown was rebellion against stuffy gospel, the Grateful Dead was rebellion against stuffy conservatism, and the Ramones were rebellion against easy listening. Most “white folk” don’t like hip-hop because it’s rebelling against them, but judging by the shit-mess we’ve put this world into, we deserve to be rebelled against. Hip-hop is rock, if not in form then definitely in pure spirit of open rebellion, and deserves to be honored in the Hall.

NWA is the founding daddy of that harsh, rebellious, in-your-face hip-hop. I don’t even know what more to say. Me sitting here proclaiming NWA was vital to hip-hop’s maturity as an art form would be like me sitting here explaining how the Rolling Stones were important to rock. It’s obvious to everyone. If you think hip-hop should be in the hall, NWA should be at the top of it.

Funk Soul Brothers

WARI love old-time funk, soul, and R&B. My iPod is chock-full of P-Funk, the Isley Brothers, Tower of Power, Sly and the Family Stone and, of course, James Brown. If that stuff doesn’t make you feel good, you probably should get professional help.

So how in God’s name is War not in the Rock Hall yet? This is one of the biggest travesties in the history of the Hall, even bigger than Lynyrd Skynyrd’s long years of snubbing. I never found Lynyrd Skynyrd particulary interesting. They were a good band, a powerful band, and much-loved. But War, they had a tremendous sound, a unique sound, a sound that blended the happy peppiness of funk with a dead-stern serious message. They mixed African and Latin rhythms, put in a horn section, and tore it up in different ways on many, many songs. Man they were brilliant.

The Masters of Industrial Rock

Nine-Inch-Nails-2015-NomineeNow it’s time for some real heavy shit, the stuff that should truly be called “rock”. I’m talking Nine Inch Nails. The Nineties was an awesome decade for rock music, and we’ve already seen the best of the decade — Nirvana — in the Hall. Like the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s before it, the Rock Hall deserves to be absolutely stuffed full with representatives of the “grunge era”, and there’s no better addition than Nine Inch Nails.

It’s not just the work of the band itself, but frontman Trent Reznor has a great body of work outside that project as well. He almost deserves to be in as a “nonperformer” for his producing and writing credits, plus his movie soundtrack work. But being inducted as Nine Inch Nails is reward enough. They’re a great addition to the Hall, an early entrant for a ton of great Nineties inductees.

The Rest of the Nominees

So those are my five picks. Here’s a quick take on the rest of this year’s nominees:

  • Chic — disco was an evolutionary dead end, the Piltdown Man of rock music. It was pointless, shallow, musically uninteresting, and had none of the rebellion that’s coursed through rock & roll’s veins since Lead Belly.  I begrudgingly accept the Bee Gees as members, simply because one cannot deny the cultural powerhouse of “Saturday Night Fever”, but the other disco artists (ABBA? Donna Summer?) have no business there, and neither does Chic.
  • Joan Jett & the Blackhearts — I loved Joan Jett when I was young. They were a true rock band, a welcome respite from the strangeness of the Eighties. I have absolutely nothing against them, I just don’t think they really added much to the genre as a whole. Plus I am limited to five picks, I think the others are more deserving.
  • Green Day — simply too early. I definitely want them in the Hall. NIN is enough of a Nineties era band for this year’s induction ceremony.
  • Kraftwerk — I’m certain, some day, Kraftwerk will be in the Hall as “the founders of electronica”. I guess I’m still wrestling with hip hop & rap being in the Hall, I’m not ready for techno.
  • The Marvelettes and The Spinners — Fine groups, but I think the music of their style & era is so well represented in the Hall already, I don’t really see the point of them joining it as well.
  • The Smiths — I lived through The Eighties, and listened to all the music stereotypical to that era (Flock of Seagulls, Soft Cell, Thompson Twins, etc.), and I have to tell you: it’s  crap. Not quite “disco crap”, but only marginally better. It can be fun,  I guess. I find it annoying. What’s weird about The Smiths is they’re not even the most influential of the stereotypical Eighties bands! I don’t even remember them — at all!
  • Sting and Lou Reed — I don’t have a problem with band frontmen going solo and getting into the Hall twice. Clapton did it, so did Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon. The difference between those three and Sting & Lou Reed is they took their careers, their music, and their influence in new directions different than their band, making their own mark. Clapton’s solo work is so different from the Yardbirds and Cream; Peter Gabriel definitely turned left when Genesis turned right; and Paul Simon took music in awesome directions with Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints. My issue with Lou Reed is his solo work is nearly indistinguishable from the Velvet Underground’s. My issue with Sting is he did take his music in a different direction from The Police — into Easy Listening. Neither should be in the Rock Hall as solo artists in my opinion.
  • Bill Withers — this one was a hard one for me. He’s written some very good songs, and has been covered by dozens of great rock artists. I guess I find his work just a little too mellow for true Rock Hall status. I guess he’s on-par with James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, so he’s not completely unfitting for Inductee status. I’m really on the fence, and my ambivalence kept him out of my five picks.

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Rock Hall Misses

Here’s a few nominees I’d like to see on lists in the future.

  • Prog Rock is lightly represented. Pink Floyd is in, Genesis is in, Rush (if you consider them “prog”) is in. You know who’s missing? Probably the most talented group of musicians to ever record a rock album. I’m talking about King Crimson. Yeah, they never had a big album and never became the commercial powerhouse of Yes or Emerson, Lake & Palmer. But that band had some of the best musicians to ever gather together and record an album. I saw them live in the 90’s as a “double trio”, with founder Robert Fripp and vocalist Adrian Belew on guitars, Trey Gunn and Tony Levin on bass, and Pat Mastelotto and Bill Buford on drums, and they absolutely blew my socks off. This wasn’t any “trippy progressive” stuff, this was simply … amazing. And you’ll hear lots of current artists extol their praises and cite them as influences. King Crimson definitely should be in the hall, just on their sheer talent.
  • I lamented the shittiness of Eighties music earlier. The best representative of that much-maligned musical era? The Cars. They epitomized the genre, ruled the airwaves, ruled MTV, and were pretty damned talented. Ric Ocasek is still producing stellar albums. I’d like to see them as the official Ambassador of the Eighties in the RRH0F.
  • Rick Rubin must be inducted as a nonperformer. Just look at this list of albums he produced:
    • Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill
    • Black Crowes’ Shake Your Money Maker
    • Johnny Cash American Recordings series
    • Danzig’s sdebut
    • Audioslave’s debut album
    • Neil Friggin’ Diamond’s Twelve Songs & Home Before Dark
    • Adele’s massive-selling 21

This is just the tip of the iceberg, only a sampling across so many genres and so many generations of artists. It’s just ridiculous what this guy has been involved in, and he’s not just a sit-back-and-write-checks producer. He’s involved in all of these projects, working with the artists. This guy should absolutely be in the Rock Hall, full stop.

What do you think? Like my picks? Hate them? Think I’m massively full of shit? Let me know! Oh, and let the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame know as well.

A Game-Changer? Hopefully

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to intervene in several appeals of same-sex marriage equality. There are reams and reams of analysis on the ramifications of this decision all over the Interwebs, all of it better than mine, so I won’t even try.

I think this is great news. I support same-sex marriage and general equality for the LGBT community. Part of this is my own system of values. I just don’t see anything wrong with it amongst consenting adults.

But beyond that, I think this is great news for the principle of a limited government. I think even conservatives should rejoice. It really boils down to good, limited governance of a free society.

I know staunch libertarians will disagree with me on this, but a free & prosperous society actually requires a strong, functioning government. The key is strong & functioning with regards to what a good government should be doing.

In my view, the good government of a free society needs to provide these functions:

  • defending the nation from external attacks
  • keeping the internal peace when individuals cannot do so themselves
  • providing a legal framework for conducting business and settling disputes
  • ensuring all citizens have equal voice and are subject to fair treatment; and that the weak are protected from being abused by the strong
  • funding and implementing beneficial public works projects that cannot effectively be completed by the private sector

And … that’s it. Sure, one can quibble on exactly how these functions should be done, but this is really the list on what a government should do for its people.

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The problem many social conservatives have is they add this sixth bullet, in one form or another:

  • be the guardian of a moral code

This is what the gay rights limiters, the “no sodomy” lawmakers, the abortion deniers really want: they want the U.S. government to be the enforcer of a moral code (specifically, their moral code).

Ugh, what a horrid thought. It amazes me that these folks don’t see this as a horrid thought!

It’s not too hard to imagine a world where governments enforce moral codes. It’s happened ever since the dawn of civilization. Tyrannical regime after tyrannical regime has done everything from slavery to ethnic/religious cleansing to forced castration to progroms and ghettoization, all to enforce their “moral code”. These are all terrible things, and to think some people don’t see it this way is immensely troubling. A government, even the U.S. government, enforcing moral codes is a bad idea!

Plus it’s just a waste of money, if you’ll permit me to be so crass. Do we really want to pay taxes to enforce this stuff? I don’t

This ruling should be taken as a signal that laws governing behavior solely for the enforcement of a moral code, and for no other valid reason covered by good governance, should be overruled.

The Other Reason This Is Right

Awareness.

Enlightenment.

Piety.

Oneness.

Grace.

Ascendancy.

All are terms, terms across so many religions and belief systems. Toss in Heaven, or Nirvana, or Bodhi, or any of a number of more specific words. All words connoting the apex of spiritual existence.

Now look at all the greats across all these religions or philosophies. St. Thomas Aquinas. John the Baptist. Siddhārtha Gautama. Mohandas Ghandi. Mother Theresa. There are lots, lots more.

Do you think any of them needed a government entity to enforce their moral code upon them? No. They believed it, took it to heart, made it their own, and based their lives upon it. Oh, and what lives they led! Such lives, that we we still speak their names with reverance, even millenia later!

Religion, spirituality, philosophy: these are all things that are yours. They are personal to you. Your journey to whatever the apex of your own belief system is yours, your own, no one else’s.

And it is a hard journey. I don’t know of any major religion that claims it’s easy. It’s difficult, and it is intended to be difficult. Heaven isn’t just something that you can stroll into, you have to earn it, through good works, or a pious life, or self-sacrifice, or whatever your beliefs call for. It requires strength of will and strength of character.

if you need a government to enforce your morality upon you or another, you may want to consider not only what, exactly, that morality means to you, but also what your character lacks that you can’t lead the good, clean life you want on your own, without the government enforcing it for you.

This is a good ruling, no matter how you look at it.

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

Liberty Enshrined

Everyone believes in something. Even agnostics and atheists believe in something. Some put blind faith in money, thinking it will make them happy. Some put blind faith in material possessions, because, well, *sparklies*. Some put blind faith in their political party or right-left-center talking points. Some put blind faith in celebrity, buying Bieber cologne or other ludicrous claptrap. Some put blind faith in themselves, being so arrogant as to think they are infallible and therefore beyond question. Some even put blind faith in science, as odd as that sounds, believing that any and all studies that cross their path must be true (this leads to a lot of fad diets as well as other errors).

Copyright America In Context

Liberty’s Shrine

In my own case, I tend to put blind faith in the American ideal. For folks like me, Independence Park in Philadelphia is the Temple Mount, the Ganges River, the Mecca of our own beliefs. It’s a place of extreme importance, a shrine commemorating the place where the founding principles of this country were put to paper and approved by an assemblage of great minds and strong characters. A place where heretofore un-codified principles were defined and written into law and principle, grandiose notions such as “[w]e hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”; “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it”; or “[t]he privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it”. Fabulous ideas, amazing ideas, ideas that would inspire nation after nation to rebel against tyrants and kings and establish democracy. It’s the Great American Way that Independence Park symbolizes, the Great American Way that I hold most dear.

Unfortunately.

Folks are going to worship me someday, aren't they? :sigh:

“Folks are going to worship me someday, aren’t they? :sigh:”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, ideals aren’t real. They don’t exist, and you can’t count on them. If you do, you will be betrayed. Every time. The American Ideal is the same: it’s full of betrayal. The original Constitution says that certain people are only worth 3/5ths of other people, and also said that those in bondage who escape to another state must be returned into bondage. Basically, it protected the vile institution of slavery for nearly 100 years. Even today, long after that particular abomination was wiped out by amendment, there is betrayal. These documents have been subverted, abused and weakened, leaving a system of government so devolved it barely represents the will of the people at all, and our nation is in a fine ruddy mess because of it.

Then again, it’s still important to hold onto ideals. It’s vital, actually. They are the goal, the dream, the vision, and without our goals, dreams and visions, we are a dead species. And to keep goals, dreams and visions alive, it is important that kids be indoctrinated (for lack of a better word) with ideals that are truly valuable, else they, too, will grow up to be tyrants and monsters; and you can’t do any worse than indoctrinating them into the important American ideals of equality, liberty, self-governance, and independence.

And naked statuary, of course

And naked statuary, of course

There is also no better element of that indoctrination than a trip to Independence Park in Philadelphia. I really like Philadelphia for one simple reason: the park is dedicated not to rebellion (like Boston, with it’s homage to the Boston Massacre, Faneuil Hall, and Paul Revere), nor to warfare (like Valley Forge or Yorktown), nor to marble monoliths (like Washington, DC) but to ideas, thought, consideration, and debate. It’s a site that contains meeting rooms, and convention halls, and judicial chambers;  not cannons, trenches, or cemeteries, but desks. It is a truly remarkable place in that aspect, it’s dedicated to ideas, and I find that refreshing.

But he's just sitting there! THINKING!

But he’s just sitting there! THINKING!

Liberty Imprisoned

I first visited Philadelphia in the 90’s. At that time, the Liberty Bell was in a non-descript glass enclosure inside Independence Hall. Anyone could see it. I never bought into Bell lore myself (like most American legends, it’s more tall tale than fact), but I kinda liked the presentation: subdued, no drama, viewable by everyone, kinda like I envision liberty itself. Freedom should not be a big deal, it should not be something we put on a pedestal. It should just “be”. You don’t pay attention to it when it’s there, you just live your life, yet everyone notices when it’s absent.

Then 9/11 happened, our liberties were sacrificed to the Lords of Fear, and The Liberty Bell became a symbol of our shift to madness.

In the grief-stricken days after 9/11, we were all expecting more terrorist attacks. We went bat-shit crazy protecting everything.  We improved airport security, then we “improved” airport security, then we began the systematic groin-groping known as the TSA. We started monitoring financial transactions, then started monitoring foreign communications, and now the NSA has a full-blown domestic spy program best suited for watching cheating spouses and stealing credit card numbers. We placed Jersey barriers in front of government buildings, we put metal detectors at the entry of every government building and landmark, and we built a prison for the Liberty Bell.

Liberty's Prison

Liberty’s Prison

On my second visit to Independence Park, I spotted the Liberty Bell Center, and it saddened me. The Liberty Bell is no longer just “there”, like our liberties should be. It is encased in a steel and glass structure, surrounded by guards and various security devices, reminiscent of a prison. It also, oddly, has the look of a high-end shopping mall, meaning not only is Liberty imprisoned but it’s also commercialized (they should call it Liberty Disney). I was so repulsed by the appearance of the Liberty Bell Center from afar, I didn’t have it in me to go there. Liberty was imprisoned and I didn’t want to be stuck on the outside, pressing my face against the glass in the hopes she’d remember me in her confinement.

I think the NPS has toned down the security in the intervening years, and I’ve heard from others that the Center is actually a pretty nice facility. But for me, the illusion has been shattered. The Liberty Bell, like the very civil liberties it represents, is not just cracked but contained, with an admission fee, groin groping, and gift shop.

[Photos on this blog entry are mine and thusly copyrighted.]

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Links:

Independence National Historical Park

Founding Fathers Fetish (slate.com)

3D Tour of the Liberty Bell

Google Map of Independence National Historical Park

Heavily recommend listening to Bill Moyer’s interview with poet & author Sherman Alexie. Alexie was born & raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and has written about his life as a man of two worlds (both racially and as a man who suffers from bipolar disorder).

I have a great deal of hollow empathy for the Native American. I want to call it real, I really want to know & understand tribal culture past & present, but honestly I can only I call it “hollow”, for I’m a white New England suburbanite whose only connection to Native Americans is through the co-opting of Indian stereotypes I enjoyed as a Boy Scout and a handful of books I’ve read. So other than growing up in an alcoholic household, I can only imagine the pain of growing up Native American in a country that tried to exterminate your forefathers.

Sherman Alexie certainly sounds like that gateway, that bridge between cultures. I found the interview compelling & powerful in its sadness & humor. I think I’ve figured out my next Kindle read ….

Tales of Infinite Sadness

I started my expedition through all the units of the National Park System to satisfy my fascination with all aspects of nature (flora, fauna, geology, aquatics, atmospherics). I did not expect to quickly fall in love with the other side of the parks: the historical side. As I began to tour each of those smaller sites, reading up on the history of each and their placement in the overall scheme of things, I also began to see the Great American Narrative forming, piece by piece, and was inspired to blog about it. It is only by seeing all these bits and pieces, filling in all the gaps created by our own, pufferied view of history, can one really see who we are and what we’re all about.

Yes, we are writing the Great American Narrative. And oh, what a narrative! We have heroes and villains, success and failure, trauma and reprieve, disaster and rebuilding, winning and losing. But through it all, there is something that is clear: we are making forward progress. Oh, sure, we’ve had setbacks. Right now, between lingering recession, erosion of certain civil liberties, the War on Terror and a culture that pits right against left in a Kobayashi Maru of political degradation, it feels like we’re going backwards. But really, we’d have a long way to go before we fall back to where we’ve been. Think about it: there’s no way any of our founding fathers would ever have imagined us having a half-black President. Like him or not, that’s a massive advancement from our formation over 225 years ago, when we held nearly 700,000 souls in lifelong bondage (a number that would swell to nearly 4 million by the time the War of Emancipation).

OK, so maybe progress is a little stalled …

That’s the interesting part of the Great American Narrative: we always seem to come out ahead, one way or another. The slaves were freed, but then they had to suffer through Jim Crow segregation, racial discrimination, institutional poverty, entrapping government subsidy programs, and bad educational systems, yet are finally coming out the other side. Sure, we’re not post-racial yet, but you can tell we’re really, really close (I’m guessing one more generation and we’re done with it — the recent Trayvon Martin murder debacle notwithstanding). Women also have made gains, from being the Great Unseen to becoming the major breadwinner in 40% of households and damn near winning the Presidency themselves. We’ve seen advances everywhere else, from sanitation & health to science & technology to occupational safety and even how we treat our children. Yep, we’re winning everywhere.

Well, we’re winning everywhere, unless you’re talking about the American Indian. When it comes to the Native American, there are no tales of victory. There is no Appomatox. There is no Seneca Falls or Nineteenth Amendment. There is no VE Day or the fall of a Berlin Wall. There is no eonomic security or energy independence. When it comes to the Native American, there is only one narrative, and that is a long tale of misery and betrayal and hardship and defeat and pain and infinite sadness.

The Parks reflect this in spades. Every park has some tiny, preamble segment of its visitor center museum dedicated to “early inhabitants”: always some native tribe who “lived off the land” only to, inevitably, be driven out of their homeland, be defeated in battle, be wiped out by some disease or pushed into starvation through overhunting or economic blockade. The lucky would be stuck on some downtrodden reservation, their pride replaced by the plagues of alcoholism, obesity and diabetes.

rez_house

North Dakota reservation house, circa 2009

Horseshoe Bend is just one of hundreds of chapters in this sad, sordid book of misery. In this case, it is a tale pitting one side (the Cherokee tribal nation) against the other (the Creek) for the benefit of the middle (white Southerners). This particular Creek tribe wanted to keep their lifestyle and land and resisted American assimilation. White European settlers wanted the land for their own expansion. The Cherokee were allies of the U.S. and joined up with the militias of several states (led by future New Orleans hero and President, Andrew Jackson) to take Creek land through “justifiable” retaliation for some Creek raids on farms and forts throughout Alabama. The Creek, despite fortifications that impressed even Old Hickory, were eventually surrounded and horribly defeated. Out of a thousand Creek warriors, only about 200 escaped to south Florida to join up with the Seminoles. They had to surrender 23 million acres of land to Alabama and Georgia (2 million of which would go to the same Cherokee who turned their back on their brethren). It would end up being a short-loved victory for the duplicitous Cherokee: within 25 years those same people were expelled from Georgia & Alabama and forced to march down the Trail of Tears to dusty, infertile Oklahoma, where they would lead a hardscrabble life for generations. In the end, the only victor would be the white Europeans who used trickery, deception and long-standing inter-tribal rivalries to defeat the natives and take their land.

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Only those with the bleakest heart can travel through Horseshoe Bend and the rest of the 400+ units of the National Park Service, and not be touched by the Tales of Infinite Sadness of the Native American.

[Unfortunately, I did not own a digital camera when I visited Horseshoe Bend.]

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Links:

Horseshoe Bend National Military Park

Creek-Cherokee War

Scientific analysis of the demise of the Native American

Google map of Horseshoe Bend

Next week, President Obama will be giving the first State of the Union speech of his second term. I’ve listened to a lot of SotU speeches over the years, and after a time, they all sound the same. The same beats, the same phrases, the same patters and pauses and phony applauses. That’s why SotU Bingo is so popular, everyone knows it’s just a big bag of phony.

The sentence that always gets my dander up is “The state of our union is strong!” Obama said it, Bush said it, Clinton said it, even Roosevelt said it (with a slightly different phrasing). But when you look at it, right now, in the world in which we currently live, it actually isn’t. No politician will ever have the courage to say it, but in my opinion it needs to be said. Just as a man will never get out of the rut he is in as long as he is lying to himself, so too will a nation never get out of its rut unless it is honest with itself.

I would love for President Obama to give a State of the Union speech that brings out a level of harsh, basic, patent honesty that will truly shake up this country. Something, perhaps, like this:

—————-

“Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow Americans: today I come to you, as President and in accordance with the traditions of the office and my duties as defined in Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, to address this body and this nation on the state of our union.

“For two hundred and twenty-three years, Presidents have delivered addresses, in writing or in person, to this assembled body. For two hundred and twenty-two years, Presidents have declared that “the state of our union is strong”. Through war, recession, and catastrophe, presidents have continued to maintain that the nation is strong and we can work through any peril that may face us. I, too, believe that this nation can strongly and bravely face any external peril, be it foreign aggression, economic tribulation, or the hazards of climate and nature. However, the one thing that can harm this country, and that harms this country today, comes from within. We can not be defeated, but we can defeat ourselves.

“The strength of this nation comes from the strength of our ideals and the strength of our citizens. That much is undoubtedly true, and based on those factors alone, I could easily stand here before you and say “our country is strong”. But this type of strength is not enough to make for a strong UNION. A strong nation not only requires a citizenry of high character and strength, but a government that can perform those functions necessary to bring stability, justice, safety, and peace. Unfortunately, we do not have such a government, and that is keeping this nation from truly being great in this 21st century.

“Our Founders had the wisdom and foresight to create a fabulous document, the first written democratic Constitution in the history of mankind, a document that specified an amazing notion: the idea of three branches of government and the separation of powers. Put in the context of the span of human civilization, this was a magnificent creation! A chief executive, a notion existing since the dawn of humanity, providing leadership, especially in times of crisis or war. An independent judiciary, answerable only to the law and the principles upon which the group was founded, ensuring justice is applied evenly and fairly. And a legislature, the representatives of the people, giving a voice to all the members of the group in the decisions that are made. These three branches form the strength of a triangle, and, like a three-legged stool, when one is weak, the whole thing topples.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this nation is a three-legged stool wobbling on the weakness of one. We have a situation where one branch is failing this nation, and their failure is putting the entirety at risk. This Congress, this assembled body, is in a state of disarray the like this nation has not seen since the day Charles Sumner was caned on the floor of the Senate in 1856. This chaos is keeping this country back. It is holding our economy hostage. It is preventing the honest exchange of ideas. It is interrupting the wheels of justice. It is not capable of providing the necessary oversight to prevent Executive Branch overreach. It is engaging in a level of hostility that is inspireing division amongst the people. It is acting in a way unbecoming to the intent and purpose of Article 1 of the Constitution, and is an embarrassment to the people of these United States and to the free nations of the world.

“We have a Congress that cannot perform its most basic of duties. We have a Congress that cannot propose, much less adopt, a budget. We have a Congress that cannot confirm federal judges, leaving an overwhelmed judiciary. We have a Congress that forces the Chief Executive to invent clever ways to circumvent it because they are incapable of action. We have a Congress that, on the one hand, decries something as evil and demands action, yet on the other neuters the very agency designed to do it. This is a Congress that does not even allow the free discussion of ideas within its own halls, a body whose very rules allow an anonymous few to squelch even discussion of a topic! Regardless of political philosophy, right or left, the suppression of debate is fundamentally, morally, ethically WRONG and the Senate ought to be ashamed of itself for even having those rules. And the House isn’t much better: the majority party will only discuss things THEY want to discuss, to the detriment of fair and open discussion.

“Ladies and gentlemen of this Congress: this country needs a working legislative branch. It cannot function without it. Without a functioning legislature, we have uncertainty. We have doubts about our future. Nothing cripples a society like an uncertain future. We also have injustice, the injustice resulting from the silencing of open debate. This Congress, those of you assembled here, have duties. You have responsibilities, and you took oaths of office, sworn upon Bibles and Torahs and the Bhagavad Gita. Your oath compels you to serve this nation and the Constitution of the United States, not your party, not your ideology, not your favorite radical talk-show host or blogger, and certainly not the lobbyist who frequents your office on a daily basis. You need to serve your country and the Constitution. But you are not doing so, and judging by polls taken across the country, the people know this and are judging you poorly for it. This body needs to get to work, doing the people’s business, not perpetuating your own petty feuds.

“This Congress has a job to do, and needs to begin immediately. Propose and pass a valid budget. Vote on the appointments before you, ESPECIALLY the judicial appointments. Begin open and honest debate on the issues before you, and allow them to come before a vote. Eliminate any and all rules that allow anonymous blocks of any debate or appointment. Tackle the gun issue head on, free up the CDC to study the issue with scientific methods and allow the ATF to enforce the laws that you’ve passed OR repeal those laws if they’re too invasive, just don’t let them remain in the worthless state they’re in. Tackle climate change head on with honest, scientific debate, free from those who would skew such debate with lies and deception. Tackle this economy head-on by passing tax and regulatory reforms you deem necessary, and make them long-lasting so our business community knows there will be stability in our economy. Stop the pointless bickering over the debt ceiling, that is a fabricated issue and you know it. And get the lobbyists out of your offices and into the gallery with the rest of the citizens of the country. They are no better than the average person simply because they have large purse strings. And if there are members of this institution who find themselves incapable of performing their duties and fulfilling their oaths, then at least have the decency to step aside, retire, and allow another to take your place.

“This nation cannot survive and thrive with a malfunctioning government. We need a competent and honest Congress. Please give us one. Thank you, good night, and God Bless America.

—————-

Yeah, won’t happen. We’ll have more platitudes and more “mystery guests” in the balcony and more standing ovations of the same applause lines we’ve heard time and time again. Entropy will continue, and things will get worse, until either the next great leader, or the next great crisis, comes along and gives us the impetus to change our ways.

[Editted to include an oversight on "executive branch oversight". Was intended to be part of this post but was missed.]

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