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Life as Performance Art

    Groucho Marx would famously flick his cigar, raise his eyebrows, and ask contestants on his television quiz show,  You Bet Your Life, “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?”  It’s a quick question, and the answer is a bit further down in this column.
    Grant was born two hundred years ago in late April 1822.  Until a few decades ago that two century mark would have been a no brainer and cause for a national celebration. Civil War re-enactors would get their uniforms out of the mothballs and march down the streets; there would be re-enactors of Grant, giving speeches; and we would honor our Sixteenth President.  Today, life is far more complicated because Grant was a complicated, an example of contradictions, and doesn’t sit into everyone’s idea of a good man, much less good President. This year there were a few small celebrations in Ohio, St Louis, and other cities associated with his life.
      Grant graduated from West Point and saw combat during the Mexican-American War, and then was posted as a quarter-master to Fort Vancouver, near Portland Oregon. He was incorruptible and would not tolerate malfeasance from vendors or fellow soldiers. Despite its non-glamorous work, it was the best possible training for later in life because he grew to appreciate the importance of soldiers having all the supplies they needed. Unfortunately, he was lonely for his wife Julia, and began to drink heavily.
     When he resigned his commission and returned home.  his father-in-law gave him a slave.  Even though they were desperately poor, Grant soon signed the documents to give the man his freedom.  His friends thought he was foolish, but Grant was undeterred.  He discovered he wasn’t much of a businessman, and when the Civil War broke out, he rejoined the Army.  In short order he rose through the ranks and was appointed the commander of all the union forces.  Three years after receiving General Lee’s sword in surrender, he was elected President, and would serve two terms.
     According to his legions of detractors, as President he continued to prove he was a moral failure. He suppressed the KKK and other radical groups trying to oppress the newly freed slaves but didn’t do enough. He attempted to create and maintain fair treaties with the American Indians, but his detractors were not satisfied. Even over-seeing the Transcontinental Railroad is, to them, just another symbol of his colonialist and imperialist mentality. He didn’t support women’s right to vote and proposed removing Jewish citizens from the southern states because they had economically benefitted from slavery.  Others claimed he was not sufficiently supportive of the Fifteenth Amendment.
    Many of the men around him, including his vice president Schuyler Colfax, saw his honesty and fairness and weakness and took advantage of him. Worse, they helped themselves to the public coffers with some very corrupt schemes.  Grant remained incorruptible throughout his life. When Grant died in New York City in 1885, he and his family were spared from abject poverty only because Mark Twain helped him write his now-famous best-selling autobiography. The people of New York honored their former President with a magnificent tomb, although neither the President or Mrs. Grant are buried in it.  [Keep reading].
     As I wrote, there is considerable rejection of President Grant, just as there is of many American men and women from previous centuries and decades.  In 2020, the mobs in San Francisco pulled down a monument erected in his memory.
     I have had my fill of these smug pseudo-intellectuals who think it is perfectly acceptable to take potshots at American heroes simply because they don’t live up to their standards. I cannot see the justification in judging someone from two, three, or more centuries ago by today’s standards.  They want to cancel those whose standards are different from their own, and to my way of thinking, that is just plain goofy.
     This sort of juvenile mentality is just about as arrogant as it comes.  It’s the silly mentality of someone who seems to think they are the center of the universe and cannot tolerate anyone or anything that isn’t a perfect mirror image of themselves.
    Even worse than these smug little holier-than- thou wretches are the ones who then immediately try to cancel someone who doesn’t measure up to their standard. We like to think it is a relatively modern phenomenon, but it goes back to at least 1479 BC when Queen Hatshepsut fell off her perch and her son Thutmose III took over.  By then he was no longer her little pride and joy, because he was already middle aged. Nor was there any love lost between them; he was ticked off that his mum, who was now on her way to become a real mummy, had hung around for so long.  Worse, she had taken the throne as a regent many years earlier and should have handed it over to the boy when he was 18. She liked the job too much, to say nothing of all the benefits that went with it. To cut to the chase line, Thut ordered every tangible sign of Hatshepsut chiseled off the rock walls and out of the temple.  No name, and in no time, she would be forgotten – or so he thought.
     People have been doing it ever since.  At least Stalin had it easier than Thutmose III.  He was constantly sending a friend or colleague off to the show-trials where the judges already knew that the guy was guilty, and it was just a matter of how quickly to get rid of him. The problem was that every time Stalin got rid of one of his old cronies, photographs, newspaper articles, and books had to be rewritten to tell the ‘true’ history.
     It never really works out the way the cancellators plan, which makes life easier for historians.  Whether it is a show trial or what the Brits call “deplatforming” someone with the “wrong” ideas, it never succeeds because most of us are smart enough to not let it happen.
     Theodore Roosevelt, has also been the on the wrong side of many topics, according to his detractors.  He never let it stop him. In 1910, while speaking in Paris, he gave his “The Man in the Arena Speech.   He spoke. “It’s not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better.  Credit belongs to the man who is in the arena.”
     You and I, and generations after us, will long remember the men and women who were “actually in the arena.”  The woke-warriors will be forgotten.  Once we clear them out of the way we can look honestly and critically at our predecessors and learn the lessons that history offers us.
    And as for Groucho’s question about who is buried in Grant’s Tomb.  No one.  The President and Mrs. Grant were laid to rest in above ground in his and her sarcophaguses in the chamber inside the tomb.

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