My Way

A bust of Augustus.

‘If I have played my part well, clap your hands, and dismiss me with applause from the stage.’

Joshua Abraham Norton was born circa 1814. His birth took place in England, but afterwards Norton spent some thirty years of his life in South Africa, then a part of the British Empire. In 1849, after his parents had died, Norton left South Africa, heading towards the United States in order to try his hand at entrepreneurship in the New World. Following China’s ban on the export of rice due to an internal famine, Norton invested heavily in what he saw as a lucrative business opportunity: Peruvian rice. For a number of reasons, the endeavour proved disastrous and left Norton penniless.

Sadly, much information of Norton’s early life, including that regarding his ventures in South Africa, has been lost to time. What we do know of his life is due to the considerable media attention that followed his proclaiming himself the Emperor of the United States in 1859, mere ten years after his arrival on the continent. We cannot state with certainty why he wanted to be Emperor – your guess is as good as mine – but maybe he was simply upset; upset at being poor and powerless. Such feelings, I find, are not altogether uncommon among the race of man.

Anyhow, our Norton, who now fancied himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States, began his regal reign by writing up not only imperial orders – mostly denouncing the U.S. Congress and ordering the institution to be abolished – but also love letters to Queen Victoria of the British Empire. Although Victoria has been hailed by many as one of the greatest monarchs in British history in addition to being a fine lady, we observe an uncharacteristic lack of grace in her failure to respond to Norton.

Well, both the Congress and the Queen ignored poor Norton. But not everyone did, for the citizens of San Francisco took a curious liking to him, gladly accepting the man as their Emperor. Restaurants provided nourishment for the Emperor free of charge (although Norton always paid with mock Imperial notes issued under his name) and theatres reserved seats for him. Why is it that they went out of their way to care for Norton? It’s difficult to say, but the establishments Norton took a liking to reportedly saw an increase in both business and fame, so the arrangements could be described as being mutually beneficial.

Admittedly, the Emperor was a strange fellow. He had no job (other than being Emperor), which resulted in an abundance of spare time at his command (as well as a chronic state of poverty). Furthermore, according to contemporary reports, one of Norton’s favourite pastimes was examining the condition of public property. He’d spend hours a day just walking about the streets of San Francisco, gazing at buildings and delivering lengthy speeches on matters philosophical and practical to those subjects unwise enough to lend the man their ears. Mingling with the commoners, as one can understand, is an effective way for a sovereign to improve their reputation. However, since Norton’s influence – his power – was derived from a singular understanding with his subjects, it is perhaps best to think of Norton’s hobbies as him keeping his end of the sort-of-Faustian bargain he had stricken with the San Franciscans.

To put it bluntly, Norton came to be seen as a village fool. But since his fiercely anti-establishment Imperial Decrees that were printed in local newspapers – presumably for humorous effect – resonated with the common man, there were few who saw it necessary to put an end to his folly. And why should’ve they done so? Norton’s actions harmed no one; on the contrary, he provided the citizens with much-needed entertainment, attracted tourists, and he even broke up a racially motivated riot by placing himself between the brawlers and praying fervently. It was the people who entertained his delusions, were they now to drag him down and reduce him to nothing, after enabling him for years already? What was there to gain in doing so?

In spite of the general public’s favourable opinion of their Emperor, an officer of the San Francisco police force arrested Norton in order to confine him in a sanatorium. Following public outcry, he was released and a formal apology was issued by the police department. Perhaps owing to his good nature, the Emperor in turn granted the police officer with an Imperial pardon for his vile act of treason. However, this little mishap, I think, illustrates a fundamental problem when it comes to the legitimacy of Norton’s reign. The police force represent, of course, the already established Federal Government of the United States, which is not made non-existent even by the people’s blinding love for Norton.

The Emperor died on January the 8th, in the year 1880. He suddenly collapsed on the streets he had ruled over and perished before medical aid could be administrated. Norton’s reign lasted for twenty-one years and remains largely forgotten by the general public. From earliest infancy he experienced the hazards of fortune. He saw dawn break on multiple continents, acquired notable wealth, and ultimately lost everything through tragic trade. The impoverished Norton left no heir to succeed him, nor was his claim for emperorship ever formally recognised by those holding the reins. It was his death that was, for the streets of San Francisco were filled with 30,000 mourners; his subjects showed a golden state of morality and respect to the emperor in the forms of a lavish funeral and a final parting gift: a decorative casket.

Now, I’ve not studied enough Law or Political science to accurately comment on the details of why Norton was not really an emperor. Neither can I say why he could not become one by means of simple proclamation, as he himself had thought. Even so, it is quite evident to me that he was not the ‘Emperor of the United States’; and I doubt anyone in their right mind thinks so either. Still, the idea and some of the underlying issues that present themselves here are fascinating, and perhaps eternal, as suggested by their recurrence in art. From where does power originate? Via a mandate from the masses? Can we not simply lay claim to a position of power, like Norton had? And how legitimate are military juntas, or tyrants? Should the people fight to topple them, or should they be embraced? Who can tell if power should be hereditary, and can it be reallocated after it has been invested in a single individual?

The questions above will, for better or worse, remain forever unanswered. They’ll be subjects of discussion, debates, as well as art, surely, but it is naïve to think that humans will ever agree completely on political matters. This dissension paradoxically produces a need for the concept of ‘power’ itself, I feel, with power being the capability, the ability to exert influence upon others. Obviously, whilst the fledgling Emperor Norton possessed clout to the capacity of transgressing social codes, it does not a proper monarch make. Still, it doesn’t lessen my admiration of the man; he decided to turn his life around and managed to do so. Weird as it may sound, the ability to influence his own life to such a degree, and in such a way – and those of some others as well – is in fact a rather impressive feat. Don’t we all love a good underdog story?

The Emperor Norton was no emperor. Yet, we remember him as one. So positive was his influence on others that the title was granted to him. Norton wasn’t Emperor by his own proclamation, but by the people’s. Ultimately, his story is the same as that of any good man and reminds us of the following: it is only through exercising nobility of character that we live august lives.

U.S. Presidential Elections 2012: What is this I don’t even

It’s that time again; the U.S. Presidential Elections take place in less than two months. The Americans choosing their new president is always something the whole world is more or less interested in. So far, I have managed to keep most things having to do with the elections at an arm’s length. Politics usually either makes me fall asleep due to boredom and dry speeches filled with statistics or angry at the ignorance of self-centered fools doing something at someone else’s expense. However, having always been a bit curious and totally confused about the presidential elections, I decided to take the vampire by the fangs and put together an overview of what is going on in the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave.

Starting with the basics; the Election Day is November 6th, 2012. That is when the good people of the United States of America go vote for the electors who then on December 17th will decide the next president and vice-president. Each state has a number of electors in the Electoral College, which altogether has 538 members. For a candidate to win the elections, they have to win 270 electoral votes. Even if a candidate wins the popular vote, it is not certain they will win the electoral vote as well. According to the Wikipedia, the loser of the popular vote has won the actual elections three times: 1876, 1888 and 2000. The system has always baffled me and it has been criticized in the past by many, but as the wise say, it is what it is.

There are five main candidates wanting to become the next president of the United States of America, but only two of them really stand a chance. One of them is the current president the Democrat Barack Obama, an Afro-American man from Hawaii. The other one is the Republican candidate Mitt Romney, a former Governor of Massachusetts and a Mormon. The three other candidates are Gary Johnston of the Libertarian Party, Jill Stein of the Green Party and Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party. Even though either Obama or Romney is most likely going to take on the job as president of the US of A, both Johnston and Stein have gathered enough ballot access to theoretically have a chance of winning the vote at the Electoral College.

The candidates are not only trying to pursue their own ideas, but they also actively mock each other. Economics and employment seem to be the most important issues in the elections. Romney is trying to shoot Obama down with his ‘We’ve heard it all before’ tagline where he accuses Obama of not having done anything during his term as president and using the exact same themes in his campaign now as he did back in 2008. ‘Romney Economics’, Obama’s anti-Romney campaign, on the other hand brings up some of Romney’s former failures in economics, both as CEO and as governor of Massachusetts.

By just looking at the social media, it would seem that Obama clearly has the upper hand. He has 19 million followers on Twitter and his Facebook page has 28 million likes. Mitt Romney’s Twitter account has a bit over a million followers and on Facebook, he has 6 million likes. At least to the layperson, this makes perfect sense: Obama has liberal young followers who use the social media while Romney is ‘left’ with the old conservatives who steer clear of the social media. The figures here cannot be compared with their success in polls, though. According to the most recent polls, Obama is leading the race against Romney with the difference between the two ranging from 1 to 11 %. The numbers are likely to move around quite a bit in the coming weeks as the actual Election Day approaches.

But who are these people really and are they fit to be the next president? What they say and how they present themselves to the public is very important. Obama has a reputation of being a funny man. This is one of my personal favourite Obama quotes: “If I had to name my greatest strength, I guess it would be my humility. Greatest weakness, it’s possible that I’m a little too awesome.” (At the 2008 Al Smith Dinner) Romney, on the other hand, doesn’t convince me with some of the things he’s said. At the moment going around on the Internet is a picture of him and a quote: “I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that’s the America millions of Americans believe in. That’s the America I love.” Another good one is this: “He [Obama] says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.” (At a campaign event in Council Bluffs, Iowa, June 8, 2012)

Are the Americans re-electing the funny black man or is it time to put a Mormon who often seems to speak first and think afterwards into a position of high power is to be seen. Meanwhile, if you’re into politics and would like to get more acquainted with the ideas of the candidates, they all have good websites with tons of useful information dressed in the patriotic red-white-blue colour scheme. The Wikipedia page for the elections covers all the important things in a pretty simple package.

But now, it is time to wrap up with Obama’s Night of Comedy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6EkcXE_Syks&feature=relmfu

Vermont Correspondence: Back in the Land of Slow Sunsets

When I got back from a trip to China ages ago, people used to ask me how it was. I usually couldn’t think of anything snappy to say. Most often I just started by saying “It was weird” and went on from there. Right now, it feels like that’s what I’ll do talking about the United States too. That particular weirdness is something a few years of English Philology in Finland or twenty years worth of experience on American pop culture will not prepare you for.

First of all, USA IS BIG. There, the biggest cliche, right up front. With “big” I mean “vast” and with “vast” I mean “in the broadest sense”. The spectrums of different educational backgrounds, of the way English is spoken and of the way the world around Americans is approached are immense – even in a liberal, children-of-hippies state like Vermont. This, I think, cannot be fathomed without seeing it for oneself (and I’m not sure if two coasts and twentyish cities gave me the complete view either).

Second, there is no other way to study a culture than to see it in live action. If we, as students, are to understand a phenomenon like “being American”, we need first hand experience of it. The last time I checked we’re graduating as Masters-of-All-kinds-of-aspects-of-English-language-&-culture.

Without a doubt, being in a foreign environment with people that are not your run-of-the-mill Helsinki hipsters (no offense, all my friends) leads one to take another look both around and at oneself. The potential for growth as a cosmopolitan person with an open mind is baffling in a place where one’s own conservatisms have to be renegotiated.

Academically, the American college offers courses that we can only dream of in Finland. How about doing a senior seminar in creative writing? Or studying the latest artworks in the field of graphic novels (no, not Watchmen, although that might be a good start)? Or checking out last years Pulitzer Prize winner, or the one from year before, on a course on contemporary fiction? Chances like these do not materialize in Finland (at least not yet) and have to be grabbed somewhere else.

Did I have a point floating somewhere around there? Oh yes, I think I did. It follows.

Dear Universities. Please make an exchange semester in an English-speaking country mandatory for us philologists and guarantee funding for such a program. → Get immensely qualified and broadminded Masters of Arts. → ??? → Profit (if that’s what you’re into).

Esko Suoranta
Better Than Sliced Bread