Monday, October 28, 2013

Lightning Strikes at Chickamauga

"This is a white man's nation... This is a white man's republic!... Do you want these northern abolitionists to take away your Constitutional right to your own property?!?"

"Long live the Constitution!"

"Long live the Constitution indeed! And long live the Union! It is your choice, good people of Georgia, who you want to represent you as the next President of the United States."

"Do not let these bickering Democrats confuse you. The platform of the Constitutional Union party is very simple; Maintain the primacy of the Constitution, uphold the sovereignty of the Union, and enforce the laws democratically passed by our people."

It was with such exhortations that visitors were greeted as they stepped off the bus for the special "timeline" program at Chickamauga during the 150th anniversary commemoration of the battle. The program was truly unique, taking visitors on a journey through north Georgia from 1860-1864. The timeline began with 1860 political stump speeches with representatives of John Breckenridge, Stephen Douglas, and John Bell making statements like the ones you just read, and then moved through recruitment into the Confederate Army in 1861, the homefront in 1862, the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863, and the aftermath of battle in 1864. It was a fascinating way to present the information that truly stood apart from anything else I have seen as part of the sesquicentennial.  I am working on a series of videos of the timeline, but had to put the project aside when the government shut down on October 1 and have been unable to pick it back up since returning. 

This program was far from the only thing that was new and unique about spending a week in north Georgia. It was a part of the country I had really only driven through before and a great chance to learn more about a crucial Civil War battle and campaign that I was far too ignorant of.

It could well be argued that the Battle of Chickamauga, despite being a Confederate victory, was actually the death knell of the Confederacy. Events leading directly out of this battle culminated in Lee's surrender to Grant nineteen months later. It is also second only to Gettysburg in regard to casualties sustained in a single battle. Yet it is largely unknown and unreferenced in the eastern theater of the war. I too was largely ignorant of much of its story before spending ten days helping to tell it.

I split my time between photography and video, successfully producing these four videos during the time that I was there.

Artillery Demonstration

Killed at Chickamauga

What the Monuments Speak to Us

Lightning Strikes at Chickamauga

Eight more videos are in process and I will hopefully be able to turn my attention back to them after finishing a promotional video for the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.

Although most of my focus during programs and tours was on video, I did take some pictures as well. You can see some of them in this Album from the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga. As was the case at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, my favorite images were captured when I went out at sunrise or sunset. Although trees abound at Chickamagua, making it quite difficult to capture the sun, I ended up with some pretty decent images from my various attempts to photograph the light and the clouds.

Spending ten days in Chickamauga was not without its complications. It was no simple thing to miss an entire week of school, especially sine I am taking three classes this semester and was already feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work. Indeed, had it not been for The Government Shutdown, I don't know how I could have recovered from the trip and gotten everything done. Despite the impact it had on my schoolwork, I am very glad I got to be a part of it, especially since the event was most likely my My Last Battle of the Sesquicentennial. I have said it before, but in light of the recent abuse directed toward the Park Service, it bears saying again: I get to do some pretty meaningful things and work in some pretty special places as a National Park Ranger!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The State of the Republic after a Government Shutdown

After 16 days of being told that I could not come in to work I am officially back on the job. It is a good feeling to be doing something that I love once again, although I am definitely going to need to retrain myself to get up and go into work every day! 

The timing of the shutdown was actually incredibly good for me.  I had just returned from spending ten days in Georgia for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga, and was scrambling to play catch up with all the schoolwork I had not gotten done while I was gone. The shutdown came at the perfect time to allow me to, not only catch up, but also keep up with all of the additional work, including writing three papers. I still have two more papers to write in the next week, but was able to get a lot done in the past two weeks, work that I don’t know how I possibly could have finished if not for the shutdown. The timing also perfectly coincided with Alison’s parents coming to visit. They arrived on October 8 and departed yesterday, which meant that I did not have to go into work the entire time they were here. Although we could not go to Shenandoah National Park as we had planned, I was able to do a good deal more with them while they were here because of not having to go to work. So, from a personal standpoint, the shutdown came at a rather good time. If only they had passed a CR that expired December 7 or 8 and then shut down the government again for a week or so to allow me to get all of my finals done… :p

In all seriousness, despite the benefit of extra time for school and family, the stress of having to try and figure out how we would pay bills with me not getting a paycheck and constantly having to reevaluate plans to make sure I was available to go into work if called back, definitely made the shutdown a less than enjoyable experience.

Being furloughed during a government shutdown taught me a lot, and revealed much about the status of our nation. Here are a few of the things that I observed:

~We have serious problems with the leadership of our country. There have been fights among political factions since the day the American republic was founded, but the situation we face now is exceptional in the intensity of partisanship, and the ineffectiveness of the leaders of our government to effectively govern.

~You can blame the shutdown on who you want, but no matter how you look at it, the result is far from optimistic. The great solution to reopen the government after 16 days of closure was to do almost nothing at all. The debt ceiling was raised for a few months and the government funded for even less, with no measure taken to effect any sort of meaningful change. I am glad to be back at work, but the bill that was signed last night gives me very little hope for our future.   

~The adherence to partisan ideology in this country has reached a point that should disturb all of us. The way that congressional districts have been drawn all but guarantees the reelection of many members of Congress and it is abundantly apparent that few are willing to stand up for the best interest of the people and really take a stand for something. Most coverage of the shutdown and nearly all the comments I heard from members of Congress was focused on vilifying the opposing side with no sense of responsibility and little or no reference to the large political culture and issues that have made this situation possible. This is a stupid way to run a government and the ongoing polarization is making it worse. We would do well as a nation to call more attention to it.

~On a related note, I was sorely disappointed in the behavior of our president. I did not vote for Obama. I did not want him to be the president. However, he was elected by the majority of the American populace and therefore rightfully occupies the office of the President of the United States. With that office comes certain responsibilities and expectations. Chief amongst them are to act like the president. Throughout the shutdown process Obama consistently set himself up as, not the president, but rather the head of the Democratic Party. The clear partisanship of his statements and actions is not the model of presidential authority. As the president, he should be able to set aside his own political beliefs and step above the partisanship, something he has clearly and consistently failed to do. In many ways he is just as radical and extreme as conservative Republicans, he is just radical and extreme in the other direction. Rather than recognizing this and striving for a moderate middle ground, he consistently blames conservative Republicans for everything as if he has no power to do anything about it. This is not presidential. It is petty and childish. Being the president doesn’t mean you get your way. It means you lead both parties and the country as a whole.

~The American people, many members of Congress, and President Obama displayed a significant lack of understanding of basic divisions of power and responsibility under the Constitution. Whether you agree with Tea Party Republicans or think they are the antithesis of all that is good and right in the world, the suggestion that the House of Representatives does not have the ability to determine what gets funded and what doesn’t (which I heard repeatedly over the past three weeks from many sources, including the president) is patently false. This is a power that is explicitly given to that body of our government by the Constitution.

Congress as a whole has the power to:
     “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common
       Defense and general Welfare of the United States.” (Article 1: Section 8)


      “borrow Money on the credit of the United States.” (Article 1: Section 8)

Two other especially relevant passages are:

Article 1: Section 7:
  “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.”


Article 1: Section 9:
  “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”

In other words, the government cannot pay for something unless a bill for raising revenue or a bill to borrow money on national credit and then an appropriation are passed. Thus, both the Senate and the House have to be involved in raising money and funding government programs and if they choose not to fund something it doesn’t operate. This is the express power of Congress, not the Executive or Judiciary. It is a fact that seems to have been widely forgotten by much of the American public.

~On a similar note, it was very surprising to me how many people, including members of Congress do not seem to understand that when an appropriation is not passed the government has to close down its operations. While I readily agree that it is very confusing because so many government functions were not stopped (I think they should have been, but that is another conversation), the fact remains that it is a very clear cause and effect scenario. If Congress does not pass appropriations the federal government has to close down sites normally available to the public.  

~As I noted in my Last Post, I was very surprised to see how much both members of Congress and the American public vilified the Park Service for the closure of parks. I thought that most people, and certainly members of Congress, understood that failing to pass an appropriation of funds meant that all 401 National Park units had to close. Not some of them, not the less popular ones, all of them. One of the things that became all too evident during the shutdown was that this fact is not understood well at all.

~In the midst of the shutdown a House regulatory commission subpoenaed the Director of the National Park Service to a hearing on his supposed intentionally and unnecessarily painful implementation of the shutdown. It was truly painful to watch this hearing. The sheer lack of understanding and lack of responsibility was appalling. Among the many things that bothered me about that hearing (and there are many) was the fact that the shutdown was treated as a normal and expected function of government. Director Jarvis was lambasted for not having a plan in place to keep parks open through state funding as if that was something he obviously should have prepared for since shutdowns are a routine part of governmental operations. Likewise he was attacked for failing to reopen subsidiary sites more quickly when he was operating with a miniscule staff because nearly everyone had been furloughed. It doesn’t even make sense. The hearing was a powerful example of the failure of our government to understand that there are consequences for their actions or lack thereof. 

So while I am very glad and thankful to be back and work (and receive a paycheck!), I am concerned for the future of our nation. Change needs to happen or we will find ourselves in increasingly dire straits in the months, years, and decades to come. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Impact of a Government Shutdown

I have gained quite a few unique experiences living and working in the immediate vicinity of our nation's capital for the past three and a half years. When I came out to work on the National Mall in January, 2010 I expected to have moved on in less than a year. I certainly did not know that I would meet the love of my life, get married, take on the challenge of an MA in American History, and work in three different positions with the National Park Service in the immediate area. I also did not anticipate having a front row seat for the shutdown of the Federal Government.

As we near the end of day 5 of the government shutdown, we appear to be no closer to resolution than we were on September 30 and National Parks continue to be one of the principle faces of the shutdown. It is strange to be barred from my office and forced to stay at home waiting each day to find out if I can return. It is strange to see places I used to work (most visibly the WWII Memorial) become so central to the public perception of the shutdown. It is strange to be so intimately impacted by the actions, and lack of action, of others.

It is also disturbing. It is disturbing to see how polarized representatives of the two parties are. It is disturbing to see how differently the shutdown is portrayed depending upon which media pundits one listens to. It is disturbing to see the misrepresentations, manipulations, and outright lies set forth by both sides. It is disturbing to see members of Congress, whose actions are directly responsible for the shutdown, display such a disconnect between what they are, or are not, doing, and the impact on the American people. The same Representatives and Senators who failed to pass a budget, and thus shut down the government, are repeatedly attempting to portray themselves as heroes who are opening the shuttered memorials on the National Mall to the public, while appearing to genuinely fail to understand that it is they who caused their closure in the first place. It is disturbing to see one Representative in particular Who Castigated a Ranger at the WWII Memorial, telling her she should be ashamed of its closure rather than taking any measure of responsibility himself.  It is disturbing to see the agency I love portrayed as villains, "goons", and
"stormtroopers" (amongst other things) for doing the job they are required to do. But most of all, it is disturbing to see how little most people (including members of both houses and the president) appear to understand the way this government is intended to work, which branches and levels are responsible for what, and even what the structure of the government actually is. It appears that civics education is sorely wanting in America.

On a personal level, this shutdown has come at a very good time. After spending 10 days in Georgia at the 150th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Chickamauga,  I was behind in schoolwork and scrambling to stay abreast of each of my three graduate classes. The extra time to catch up and get ahead on schoolwork is badly needed, and I am trying to take advantage of it as much as possible. I even managed to squeeze in two trips to the George Mason Aquatic center before classes this week. Since I am taking three classes I am considered a full time student and thus have access to the university recreation facilities. I am usually so busy I cannot take advantage of this, but this past week I swam a mile before class on Tuesday and Thursday.

Yes, this is a disheartening time, but it is also a time for reflection and taking stock of life, and thus a time for remembering what really matters. One thing that this shutdown is making abundantly clear is how much better off we are founding our hopes and faith in Jesus Christ and his sovereignty than in the United States Government.