The Courtier in The Federalist: Lincoln’s Favorite Photographer

My thanks to The Federalist for publishing my latest piece for them, a review of a superb exhibition now on at the National Portrait Gallery about Alexander Gardner, Abraham Lincoln’s favorite photographer.





The Foul and the Pussycat

As I was watching the BBC this morning, it struck me that probably not since Mrs. Slocombe had there been so much use of the word “pussy” on British television.  Members of the Russian punk band “Pussy Riot”, which most Americans will be forgiven for never having heard of, were today convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for “hooliganism”.  Their story has largely been ignored on this side of the Atlantic, as we head into a tightly contested and very close Presidential election, but the case is fascinating not only for the student of Russian history, but also as we consider the polarization taking place in our own Western society.

The Pussy Riot case stems from the arrest of three of the band’s members back in March of this year, after they performed a blasphemous punk rock tune, critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.  This performance did not take place in a concert hall, in a park, or on a street corner.  Rather, Pussy Riot performed their tune before the main altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

From a legal perspective, it is interesting to note several aspects of these women’s actions.  For one thing, this was not a spontaneous protest: the band informed members of the press, who were there to film and photograph the event.  In addition, apparently the band did research to determine what time services would be held and when the building would be open, so that they could have free and open access to the altar area for the filming of their exploits – at least until the police were called,  of course.

The band did not seek a license or permission from either the authorities or from the Cathedral to perform their piece, which permission would almost certainly have been refused in any case.  They were also repeatedly asked to stop what they were doing and to leave, by custodians who worked at the Cathedral, but these workers were ignored and, in at least one case, physically pushed out of the way.  In other words, putting aside for a moment the content of Pussy Riot’s “speech”, the band intentionally planned and carried out what in this country would be considered at the very least a trespass.

Turning to the speech side of the matter, the frustration felt by many Russians with their present government, as expressed by Pussy Riot, is not only understandable, but certainly felt by this country, in its diplomatic relations with Russia.  Mr. Putin is, of course, Russia’s once and current strongman, and there have been many of these throughout Russian history.  Not unlike the Spanish, of whom it is colloquially said “the Spaniard only understands the cudgel” (more on them later),  the Russians have an unfortunate history of falling to pieces and becoming ungovernable, without an autocrat at the head of the table.  Putin 2.0 – now with 20% more Botox – still intimidates many people, and squashes dissent within Russia just as well as his predecessors Peter the Great or Josef Stalin did.  Yet as anyone who has studied the history of Russia knows, nascent attempts at actual Russian democracy usually flare up only for a period of time, and then are stamped out by these types of men.

So what are we to make of the events surrounding this case? Pussy Riot  have been described as artists being persecuted for expressing themselves, and that all they did was perform a “punk rock prayer” to Our Lady, asking for deliverance from Vladimir Putin.  I am certainly no fan of Mr. Putin, let alone of his anti-American propaganda machine known as “Russia Today”, which has been at great pains to criticize Pussy Riot over the preceding weeks.  The women should simply have been arrested for trespassing or disturbing the peace, fined, and then set free, rather than jailed and prosecuted so publicly.  However we are talking about questions of degree, here, on both sides of this case.

For while there is no question that there is a political motivation behind such an extreme and uncalled-for level of prosecution of these women, the women themselves are simply foul.  You can make up your own mind on that point, of course, though if you choose to read the lyrics of the song which they performed, which I will not reproduce here, they are not as innocent as more vacant minds – such as those of Paul McCartney or Madonna – are so easily lead to believe.  In fact, one of the convicted members was previously a member of an “artistic” cooperative whose “art” is so irredeemably vile and stomach-turning, that I cannot even bring myself to write about it here.  In fact, I almost wish I had not done my research on it before writing this piece.

That being said, we cannot know whether the Pussy Riot trial is the tip of the iceberg in a string of deliberate political prosecutions aimed at quashing dissent carried out by the present Russian government, as many understandably suspect that it is.  Or perhaps this was simply an overly harsh punishment of some rather childish provocateurs, who went too far.  Yet a detail I noticed during the coverage of the verdict this morning has stuck with me, as I think about what happens next both in Russia and in our own society in the West.

In the broadcast from court this morning, one of the members of Pussy Riot was shown wearing a t-shirt with a logo of a raised fist and arm, bearing the words, “¡No pasarán!” (“They shall not pass!”)  For those unfamiliar with it, this was one of the leftist mottoes of the Spanish Civil War, a conflict in which quite literally half of the population of Spain died.  Horrific atrocities were committed by both the left and the right during the war, and Spain has never fully recovered from it.

It concerns me that a combination of historical ignorance about what our grandparents and great-grandparents witnessed in the first half of the 20th century, and the pop-glamorization of violent words, images, and actions as somehow being “cool”, is leading us down a path such as that Spain took in the 1930’s.  In this country for example, the clever put-down of one’s political opponent a la Benjamin Franklin or JFK has been abandoned, in favor of a type of bloodthirsty screaming, going beyond a sense of fun into language so perverse and repulsive, that it leads supporters to make and occasionally carry out threats of actual, physical violence.  Oftentimes, these actions are coordinated in advance, through the use of electronic means, which allow people of ill-will to find and encourage one another to physically harm someone else.

Fortunately, we are not Russia, and thus not dragged down by a millstone of totalitarian history around our neck.  Yet if we are not careful, we may not be able to escape such consequences ourselves, for very long.  We do not have to alter our political views to try and please someone else.  However perhaps we can refrain from the type of actions that bring our causes and positions no credit, and in fact bring them into disrepute, in the eyes of our fellow citizens.

Members of Pussy Riot in Moscow Cathedral

Director Jarvis of the National Park Service Must Resign

If you are a regular or frequent visitor to these pages, then it will come as no surprise to you that I care a great deal about art, history, and civic spaces.  So it was with great revulsion on Wednesday morning while reading coverage of the Occupy DC movement’s latest shenanigans at McPherson Square here in the Nation’s Capital, that I saw a photograph of the statue of General McPherson in the center of the square named for him, sporting a Guy Fawkes mask, and emerging from a giant plastic tarp that has been thrown over his monument.  Several of my regular readers have asked for my comments about this, and while I am perhaps going to be moving a bit beyond what they intended, here goes:

It is time for Mr. Jonathan Jarvis, the Director of the National Park Service, to step down.

Now, before all of you over there on the Right think that I am taking this position because the Occupiers are a bunch of hypocritical scofflaw quasi-anarcho-hippie spoiled brats, which of course they are, you may be surprised to learn that this, alone, is no reason to oust them from the public square which they have occupied for the past several months.  Much as my fellow conservatives do not want to admit it, because they do not like the mishmash of issues which the Occupy movement stands – or tokes – for, we are better off with a National Park Service, that is cautious with respect to how it treats protesters on public land.  We have the freedom to say and do many things, thank goodness, including stupid things.

Otherwise, if there was a heavy-handed reaction to protesters in Washington, those of us who are Pro-Life for example would not have the opportunity to peaceably engage in the March for Life, which this year numbered roughly half a million people, and of course received far less coverage than the antics of the tent city dwellers in McPherson Square.  I would suggest that in some respect, this is the fault of those of us on the side of life, as we are not being as vociferous as we ought to be…though that is a topic for another post.

The monument to Civil War Major General James McPherson – which by the way is pronounced “McFURson” rather than “McFEARson” because “There’s no fear in McPherson” – was sculpted by artist Louis Rebisso, on commission from the late General’s comrades at The Society of the Army of Tennessee, who paid $32,000.00 for it.  This was following an Act of Congress authorizing the placement of a monument to the General in the capital less than one year after his death at the Battle of Atlanta in 1864, which indicates how well the General was thought of by many.  The figure of the young military man on his horse is cast in bronze from captured Confederate cannons which were melted down for the purpose.

General McPherson was originally from Ohio; he rose out of poor circumstances to graduate first in his class from West Point, where he became an instructor in military engineering for a time before moving into experience in the field.  He was regarded by all accounts as a great military mind on the rise, with a particularly good understanding of building defensive fortifications and improving the defense of harbor areas.  General William Tecumseh Sherman was inconsolable after McPherson was killed, in part because the younger man had asked for a brief leave to go home and marry his fiancée, which General Sherman refused because he did not feel he could spare McPherson.

General Sherman wrote the following after McPherson’s death:

History tells us of but few who so blended the grace and gentleness of the friend with dignity, courage, faith, and manliness of the soldier.  The country generally will realize that we have lost not only an able military leader, but a man who had he survived, was qualified to heal the national strife which has been raised by designing and ambitious men.

The Monument to General McPherson is part of a group of Civil War statues and monuments in the Nation’s Capital that were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, and which come within the purview of the National Mall and Memorial Parks spread around D.C.  The care, cleaning, and preservation of General McPherson’s monument, therefore, is not the responsibility of the District of Columbia but rather that of the Federal government under the National Park Service.  The job of the National Park Service, as described in the Act of Congress which created it, and was signed into law by President Wilson in 1916, is as follows:

The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

It is apparent that the present Director of the National Park Service is not doing his job to protect this historic monument to General McPherson. One look at the photograph below will tell you that. Whether a tent city in a national park is a vigil or a campsite, I will leave to my colleagues in the legal profession to semantically determine.  I am not interested in curtailing anyone’s freedom of speech.

Whether intentionally defacing a memorial authorized by an Act of Congress placed inside that park is an act of public vandalism however, is not open to discussion.  Imagine if the same had been done to the statue of Lincoln on the National Mall, and ask yourself whether it would have been allowed to stand, unrepaired and unpunished.  To paraphrase U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I know vandalism when I see it. And in this case, so should Director Jarvis.

It is an insult to the men and women who died to preserve the Union, and bring about freedom of millions of people from the horrors of slavery, that the monument to this man who gave his life in order to save the United States from disintegration is being so grossly insulted and defaced, and with impunity. Whatever Mr. Jarvis may or may not want or be able to do with respect to the parkland itself, General McPherson deserves better than to continue to be maltreated in this way, as a result of Mr. Jarvis’ apparent impotence to do anything whatsoever.  Nor has he considered the precedent he is setting by allowing these protesters to do whatever they want to this public work of art.  The logical conclusion we must draw from his inaction is that Mr. Jarvis would have no problem with people repelling down the front of the Statue of Liberty, either, or spray-painting red noses on the faces of the presidents at Mount Rushmore, so long as they did so to raise awareness for some cause.

Admittedly I am no one of any importance, as you are all very much aware.  I harbor no personal ill will to Mr. Jarvis, who I am sure is a perfectly capable person in other aspects of his life.  Yet as General McPherson himself would understand, if you cannot provide effective leadership, then you need to step out of the way, and allow those who are better able to lead to take charge.

Whether Mr. Jarvis leaves voluntarily, or whether he is dismissed, he has shown that he is incapable of fulfilling one of the basic responsibilities of his job.  He must be replaced by someone who understands the duties of that position, takes that job description seriously, and carries out his duties, particularly given that his salary is paid by taxpayers.  And hopefully whoever replaces this failed Director will ensure that General McPherson quickly reemerges from the indignity which he has been forced to endure, as a result of demonstrably poor leadership at the National Park Service.

General McPherson deserves better than this