by Max Sirak
Happy Presidents Day, ‘Murica!!!
Ah, nothing like a made-up holiday to honor the CEO of our oligarchy.
Mmmm…drink it in. It goes down jagged with a bitter and retching aftertaste. Which is good. It means we're of a like mind and among friends.
3QD is a bastion of thought. It's a place where words still mean things and facts still matter. It's a digital, international safe space for liberal sisters and brothers. It's a place to exchange ideas, gather, and garner support.
This last point is important. It's easy to look around today, become discouraged, and feel alone.
But we are not alone. We all have friends and loved ones who are fighting or flighting. I know I've spent a good amount of time recently trying to figure out what I can do to make things better. My quest has led to me to travel in time and look back. Today I'd like to share some of what I've found.
So – whether you're running away or ‘rastling to make the world a better place – here are some things I've learned over the last month.
The History of the Holiday
In 1971, the third Monday of February became Presidents Day. It's the only federal holiday of the month. Before 1971, there were two days off from work (or school respectively), the 12th and 22nd.
On the 12th we paid tribute to the 16th president. You know, the guy who said, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” and issued what is quite possibly the most famous Executive Order in history. (Hint – it's the one that freed the slaves.)
On the 22nd we used to honor the man who would have been our king, the man we wanted to be king, but who turned us down. You know, the slave-owning first president of the nation, who said, “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience,” and warned, “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
Now, instead of celebrating The Emancipator or The-Would-Be-King, we are told to respect all the holders of the office. So today we are going to bask in the glory of the election and term of our 11th President, James K. Polk.
(Because, as luck would have it, there are some similarities between #11 and #45.)
1) The Election Itself
Oh, what a time, 1844.
Sure, you had to be a white male who could read, afford the poll tax, and live no farther west than Iowa or Missouri in order to vote, but at least we did away with all those property ownership requirements.
It's also the only other time in our history a president won the election and lost both his home and birth states.
2) Stygian Stallions
Did you know Polk, who won his party's nomination in 1844, wasn't even trying to be president? He was aiming for vice president. He had already been the Speaker of the House and the Governor of Tennessee. It wasn't that he didn't want to be president, it's just back then, being VP was an important stepping stone to the Big Dance.
But slavery was kind of a big deal at the time. The Democrats were split over it. The Northerners wanted to re-elect our 8th President, Martin Van Buren. The Southerners liked former Vice President John C. Calhoun. At the convention, eight ballots were cast and all ended in a draw. On the ninth, James K. Polk, a compromise candidate no one thought would actually win, won.
Interestingly enough, Mexico featured prominently in Polk's election and presidency too. His aims at expanding the borders of the nation were part of the reason he was elected. Polk was a big believer in manifest destiny and thought the United States should reach from ocean to ocean. This led to war.
We wanted The Republic of Texas for ourselves. Texas thought it had won independence from Mexico eight years prior and was free to join our Union. The Mexican government thought otherwise. And, when a foreign nation invaded its territory, Mexico got pissed.
We went to war in 1846. We won in 1848. As part of the surrender, The United Mexican States gave up about 600,000 square miles of territory. The Mexican Cession included what would become parts, or all of: California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming.
Now, we want to build a wall along this 169 year old, peaceful boarder.
4) Slinging Muck and Mud
Polk essentially ran a smear campaign against his opponent, Henry Clay. In the words of historian Sean Wilentz, “In the South, Democrats played racist politics and smeared Clay as a dark skin-loving abolitionist, while in the North, they defamed him as a debauched, dueling, gambling, womanizing, irreligious hypocrite whose reversal on the bank issue proved he had no principles.”
Ad hominem at it's best.
5) Our Inherent Greatness
We all know President Agent Orange (Shout out – Busta-Bus!) won over the middle of the country with his promise to “Make America Great Again.” Polk did something similar. Only his message wasn't about recapturing lost glory. It was about our preordination to it.
Manifest destiny was a selling point of Polk's campaign. As historian William E. Weeks notes, manifest destiny has three major themes: “Virtue of the American people and their institutions; The mission to spread these institutions, thereby deeming and remaking the world in the image of the United States; The destiny under God to do this work.”
Appealing to our pride, ego, and god-given natural awesomeness. Check.
It was largely in response to James K. Polk's presidency, the Mexican-American War, and our continued acceptance of slavery that Henry David Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience in 1849. Thoreau was fed up and appalled at the unconscionable actions of his nation, and he wrote lines like…
“It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience…”
“Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”
“As most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office holders serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God.”
“The broadest and most prevalent error requires the most disinterested virtue to sustain it.”
“Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”
Seems to resound a bit with some of our contemporary moods and sentiments, doesn't it?
OK, But What Can I Do?
That's the million dollar question, isn't it?
Unfortunately, when it comes to actionable solutions, Thoreau was a bit lackluster. He basically advised us to go about living our lives and stop paying our taxes. That last part landed him in jail for a short stint. He was there one night. Then a relative of paid his taxed for him.
So, I guess if you don't have many assets and don't mind being locked up, you can follow Thoreau's lead. Although it might help if you have sympathetic, rich relatives.
My colleague, Evert Cilliers/Adam Ash, wrote a piece called The Only Way to Fight Trump: Eternal Resistentialism. It's not about the antipathy of inanimate objects. But it is full of disturbing quotes and ideas on actions to take with a little bit of Star Wars thrown in for good measure.
Ariana Huffington wrote How To Get Out of the Cycle Of Outrage In a Trump World. She lists links to six different websites you can go to.
– 5 Calls – Calling your Congresspeople has never been easier. Here you'll find their names, phone numbers, and even a script of what to say.
– The Resistance Manual – It isn't sexy or flashy, but if you're looking for information, go here.
– Run For Something – A site designed to help young people run for office.
– No One Left Behind – A place to go to help the fight against the immigration ban.
– The March For Science – This is a protest taking place at the National Mall on Earth Day (April 22nd) in support of science and facts.
– The Indivisible Guide – “A Practical Guide For Resisting the Trump Agenda.” It was put together by former congressional staffers, people who know how Congress works.
Our Actual Impact
Lori Deschene's 50 Things You Can Control Right Now is my favorite response. It's an article with a series of 50 things you can do, this moment to help the world. They aren't geared toward addressing global political problems. They are directed locally.
Because, while Gandhi may never uttered his most famous bumper sticker, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did say, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” It's on his memorial in DC.
And, if you're the type of person who thinks I'm full of shit and your daily actions don't really matter, I have two more quotes for you. Both are from John Briggs and F. David Peat's Seven Life Lessons of Chaos.
“Subtle influence is what each of us exerts, for good or ill, by the way we are. When we're negative or dishonest, this exerts a subtle influence on others, quite aside from any direct impact our behavior might have. Our attitude and being forms the climate others live in, the atmosphere they breathe.”
“On December 1, 1955 – On that particular day, (Rosa) Parks had no idea that she was starting a revolution. She was living in the truth of the moment, a tired, hardworking human being who deserved the seat no less than the white man who demanded she give it up.”
We can never know the full effect of our actions.
On this Presidents Day – long live the King. And I'm not talking about the one who turned us down.