Tag Archives: Jefferson Davis

What the Civil War Can Teach us About Patriotism

Placing flags on Union soliders' graves at Vicksburg National Military Park. Nothing is more patriotic than making sure that death for country is a a last and necessary resort.

Flags on Union soldiers’ graves at Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, Mississippi. Nothing is more patriotic than making sure that death for country is a last and necessary resort.

The Fourth of July holiday weekend is upon us, and, in keeping with tradition, Americans will be observing the founding of their nation as only they can: by searing woolly mammoth flanks (on sale at Walmart) on their Realtree-decaled, 124 propane tanked, patio grill-a-sauruses to commemorate the time Chuck Norris, a jellybean-grenade launching Ronald Reagan, a laser cannon-armed cyborg George Washington, and a velociraptor-mounted, open-carrying, tax-cutting Jesus teamed up to win American independence from the overbearing colonial clutches of the gay-communist-British-liberal-anti-freedom zombies.

Okay, perhaps that’s not quite historically accurate, but the basic tenets of Independence Day are nonetheless there. The Fourth of July is the official holiday for American patriotism, and citizens of the U.S. are a very patriotic people. But in the spirit of Independence Day, it’s worth examining what we mean when we celebrate “patriotism.”

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47 Vallandighams: The GOP’s Iran Letter and the Shadow of Civil War Treason

Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton (R-Confederacy) and his GOP collegues don't take kindly to Obama being president of 'Murica.

Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton (R-Confederacy) and his GOP colleagues don’t take kindly to Obama being president of ‘Murica.

What exactly is treason? Well that’s an easy one, innit? Treason is when a scheming, disloyal jerk betrays a sacred oath they took to their country, usually in the service of an enemy power or for shallow, partisan, political gains. It’s one of those concepts that everyone intuitively understands, but it gets really thorny when brought under the parsing nuance of the law.

Thus, when 47 members of the Republican-dominated Senate sent “An Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” (seriously, they used a generic salutation more akin to an editorial in a local newspaper) for the express purpose of undermining the Obama Administration’s ongoing diplomatic nuclear talks with Iran, they probably weren’t concerned about committing treason against the United States (besides, Obama’s from Kenya anyhoo, right?). And while their boneheaded attempt to score political points with their war-happy, right-wing base by giving said knuckle draggers yet another collective, foreign-conflict buzz may or may not constitute treason in a constitutional sense, there’s another conception of treason — the popular conception — that’s played a major role in U.S. history, and 47 GOP senators have skirted this line closer than Cubans in a missile crisis.  Continue reading

Confederate Echoes: The Ugly History Behind Questioning Obama’s Patriotism

Former Republican Mayor of New York City thinks that there colored boy is only three-fifths "Murican.

Rudy Giuliani, the Former Republican Mayor of New York City, apparently thinks that thar colored boy don’t love ‘Murica.

Remember when everyone liked Rudolph Giuliani? The former “Mayor of the World” was, after all, Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Yeah, I remember that too. But Giuliani is also a right-wing dunce.

Case in point: he recently stirred the endlessly bubbling American political chamber pot when, at a private gathering of like-minded conservative Oompa Loompas held for Wisconsin Koch Brothers organ-grinder monkey Scott Walker, he questioned President Barack Obama’s patriotism. “I do not believe that the president loves America,” Giuliani babbled, “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.” Translation: Obama’s black different; we’re not; Anti-Americanism follows. But questioning a political rival’s love of country is an old American political tactic, and it hasn’t gotten any less vile over time.  Continue reading

The Military and the Search for Heroes in American Culture

American soldiers deserve the utmost respect, but that doesn't mean that American shouldn't question the government that sends them to war.

American soldiers deserve the utmost respect, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t question the organizations that send them to war.

Do you support the troops? In some respects, that’s a trick question. After all, how could you not support the troops? With each passing day, thousands of men and women in the American military put their lives on the line in far-off places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, and even in a series of little-known strategic training operations in Africa — all in the name of protecting American freedom. And while these brave individuals are enduring all sorts of physical and psychological dangers, the rest of us are, well, not. The current American military consists of voluntary forces, and let’s be honest: most of us don’t want to volunteer for a job that involves getting shot, blown up, or other similarly unpleasant experiences that involve significant bodily harm.

And so, to make up for the fact that most of us aren’t in the military, we support the troops. But what, exactly, does that even mean? Of course, in our minds, we’re thanking them for their service; we’re wishing them the best of luck and the best of safety on their respective missions, and we might even stick a “support our troops” magnet on our vehicles. But other than vague, non-action-oriented displays of emotion, what can we really do to support the troops? Well, we hold benefit concerts; we send soldiers care packages, and we donate our frequent flyer miles.

Those are all good things to do, of course, but we as civilians also do something else for the troops that, however well-intended, is also deeply problematic: we double down on the platitudes by calling them “heroes” to the point where we run the risk of stifling legitimate criticism of U.S. military interventions. Furthermore, our platitudes create a culture of soldier worship that oversimplifies the complex beliefs and experiences of the people in uniform.

In a recent piece titled “Stop Thanking me for my Service,” Rory Fanning, a veteran of two deployments to Afghanistan, argues that the “heroism” of military service is often fraught with horrible experiences that are no cause for celebration, and that the American public usually isn’t aware of these experiences when they mouth patriotic platitudes to the troops. “[W]hat about that term ‘hero’?” Fanning writes, “[m]any veterans reject it, and not just out of Gary Cooperesque modesty either. He continues by noting that, “most veterans who have seen combat, watched babies get torn apart, or their comrades die in their arms, or the most powerful army on Earth spend trillions of dollars fighting some of the poorest people in the world for 13 years feel anything but heroic.” Here, Fanning emphasizes that in order to make soldiers into automatic heroes, you have to ignore the ugly realities of war, and you have to ignore the fact that not everything your government sends its soldiers to do is going to be for a worthy cause.

Fanning further quotes journalist Cara Hoffman, who writes that:

Hero’ refers to a character, a protagonist, something in fiction, not to a person, and using this word can hurt the very people it’s meant to laud. While meant to create a sense of honor, it can also buy silence, prevent discourse, and benefit those in power more than those navigating the new terrain of home after combat. If you are a hero, part of your character is stoic sacrifice, silence. This makes it difficult for others to see you as flawed, human, vulnerable, or exploited.

Building on Hoffman’s point about the super-human notion of idealized heroism, Fanning notes that, “Thank yous to heroes discourage dissent, which is one reason military bureaucrats feed off the term.” So why do we want to overly hero-ize American soldiers? Part of this tendency stems from the fact that we want to legitimize American military operations. We want to believe that when America fights, it does so for the right reasons, because it’s the best hope for freedom in the world — or so we think. But there’s another reason why we want to turn soldiers into heroes, one linked to the paradoxical ideal that NOT serving in the military is an inherent right for free Americans. Indeed, historically, compulsory military service has been associated with unfree, dictatorial governments the world over. In the eyes of many Americans throughout history, being forced to fight negated the very idea of American freedom. After all, if the state could force you to die in its name, how could you ever truly be free?

On the other side of that argument is the idea — so often quoted on sanctimonious bumper stickers everywhere — that “freedom isn’t free,” and that those who want to live free better be prepared to die free. But it’s this very conflict — between the idea that military service embodies freedom and the idea that military service can also be an example of state tyranny — that explains Americans’ complicated need to make soldiers into heroes. By doing so, we make their service compulsory in the sense that they act as vessels into which we pour all of our idealized notions of American freedom and goodness. They MUST serve so that we don’t have to; they bear burdens that we assume to be necessary. The problem is that those soldiers who deviate, however justifiably, from this idealized notion of heroism, such as Bowe Bergdahl, face accusations of treason, and the powerful interests who send them to distant war-zones remain in the shadows — unexamined; unquestioned; unhinged.

This cartoon from Harper's Weekly demonstrates how Confederate Conscription made its own heroes and villains.

This cartoon from Harper’s Weekly demonstrates how Confederate Conscription made its own heroes and villains.

In an era when military service is voluntary, those willing to die for their country (regardless of the worthiness of the respective cause they’re dying for) seem to embody a heroism that civilians can’t live up to. And on one level, this is certainly true: those in arms are indeed brave and they deserve our gratitude. But when we associate military service with automatic heroism, we legitimize a type of cultural totalitarian nationalism that stifles legitimate criticisms of military operations and the government and private interests that instigate them. If the soldiers who are the agents of the state (and its private sector partners) are sanctified as heroes, then the actions of the interests for which they fight also become unassailable. This is a dangerous development that has emerged in previous eras, and it was just as controversial then as it should be now.

Consider the conflict that defined modern American identity as we know it today: the Civil War. In April of 1862, the Confederate States of America instituted the first national draft in U.S. history, commonly known as the Confederate Conscription Act, to fight a war with the North that had already gone on longer than many on both sides had expected. Reception to the Conscription Act was decidedly mixed throughout the South. Some fighting-age men willingly acceded to it and joined the Confederate ranks to avoid being hunted down by conscript officers. Others, however, deserted the ranks or went into hiding to avoid compulsory service. Many believed that conscription favored the poor while exempting the rich from fighting (which wasn’t entirely true), and others maintained that the state had no right to force free men to fight in its name.

But so important was conscription to the southern war effort that Confederate president Jefferson Davis vigorously defended it in a December 26, 1862 speech in his home state of Mississippi. Addressing a crowd in the state capital of Jackson, Davis stated that the Confederate government needed to draft men to serve so that, “the men who had stayed at home — who had thus far been sluggards in the cause — should be forced, likewise, to meet the enemy.” The Conscription Act declared that all men from the ages of 18-35 were liable for military service, and Davis took pains to emphasize that donning the Rebel uniform was intimately linked to the Confederate struggle for freedom from the Union. “[W]ill you be slaves; will you consent to be robbed of your property…will you renounce the exercise of those rights with which you were born and which were transmitted to you by your fathers?” Davis asked. “I feel that in addressing Mississippians the answer will be that their interests, even life itself, should be willingly laid down on the altar of their country.”

This was an invocation for blood sacrifice to the Confederate cause, in which soldiers would die “on the altar of their country” so that the nation could live. But there was another issue that fueled Davis’ sanctification of military service: property. When Davis warned Mississippians that capitulation to the Union would result in them being “robbed of your property,” he was talking about slaves. Indeed, the Confederate quest for national independence was predicated on the notion that the South had the right to preserve slavery, and the most vociferous cheerleaders for southern independence just so happened to be men like Davis — men who were wealthy and powerful slaveholders. By turning military service into an act of devotion and heroism, Davis and other defenders of the Old South’s slave society made questioning the southern war effort — and, by extension, the powerful interests behind it — an act of treason. Those who fought in the Confederate armies for the South’s vested interests were labeled heroes, but those who objected were unpatriotic cowards who “skulk from the duties they owe their country.”

The Confederate experience with military service — as an either a heroic act of national devotion or a potential pawn of vested interests — rings loudly in modern America’s tendency to label all military service as heroism and all dissent as unpatriotic. As Steven Salaita writes, the powerful interests that run the U.S. in don’t necessarily have altruistic motives when they tout the heroism of American soldiers. “The terms we use to define the troops — freedom-fighters, heroic, courageous — are synecdoche for the romance of American warfare: altruistic, defensive, noble, reluctant, ethical,” Salaita writes. But now, as in the past, the service of individual soldiers can be admirable even as the greater cause remains less so. And the causes for which American armies fight, now as in the past, are rarely one-hundred percent pure-hearted.

The soldiers fighting in the Middle East can rest comfotably at night knowing that America's mailboxes wholeheartedly support the military.

U.S. soldiers fighting in the Middle East can rest comfortably at night knowing that America’s mailboxes wholeheartedly support the military.

Whether it concerns defense contractors, oil oligopolies, or, in a previous era, slaveholders, war is profitable, and profits don’t discriminate between noble and ignoble motives. “Multinational corporations have a profound interest in cheerleading for war and in the deification of those sent to execute it. For many of these corporations, the U.S. military is essentially a private army dispatched around the world as needed to protect their investments and to open new markets,” Salaita writes. This is not to say that soldiers don’t fight out of patriotic motives in the name of national defense; rather, he cautions Americans to always critically assess why their military fights, and he warns that viewing soldiers as heroes in the service of the American empire makes such critical evaluations impossible. “If we recognize that the troops are in fact human beings, then we simultaneously accept that they are too complex to be reduced to patriotic ephemera,” Salaita observes.

Now, we should continue to “support the troops.” They are our friends, family members, and fellow Americans who shoulder a heavy burden by choosing to enlist, and their efforts are to be commended. That said, however, we should also remember that soldiers are nonetheless human beings who embody all of the hopes, fears, contradictions, and yes, dissent that characterizes the broader human experience. To be sure, soldiers can engage in great acts of heroism, but making them into default heroes ignores both the complexity of military service as well as the fact that soldiers can serve interests that shouldn’t be exempt from criticism.

The Confederate experience during the Civil War demonstrated how a critical stand against militant patriotism can be an act of legitimate dissent that sheds light on the bigger issues about war and the powerful interests behind it. When Jefferson Davis urged Mississippians to sacrifice themselves “on the altar of their country,” he referred to a country that served the interests of the slaveholding oligarchs. Thus, the men who fought in the southern armies fought bravely for a rather ignoble cause, and those who evaded conscription functionally refused to serve that cause — and that’s worth noting.

Americans would do well to remember the past before jumping mindlessly onto the “support our troops” bandwagon without ever considering the broader consequences of conflating military service with mythical heroism. Somewhere, in a deep, dark, possibly undisclosed location, executives from Triple Canopy, Academi (formerly known as Blackwater), and DynCorp are also calling the troops heroes — and that should concern every American.

Abe Lincoln Resurfaces, Still Helping with our Better Angels

An image taken in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863 that very well might show a previously un-noticied picture of President Abraham Lincoln. Picture by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

A picture taken at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania that very well might show a previously unnoticed image of President Abraham Lincoln. Picture by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Recently, news broke that a keen-eyed former Disney animator named Christopher Oakley had discovered a previously unknown image of President Abraham Lincoln in an old picture taken by photographer Alexander Gardner. Gardener took the photo on November 19, 1863, the day Lincoln delivered his “Gettysburg Address,” perhaps the most famous – and shortest – speech in the history of the United States. If this admittedly blurry and tiny image does indeed show Old Abe, and the evidence looks fairly convincing that it does, then it would be one of the very few images of the 16th president not taken in a posed, studio setting.

As Discovery News reports:

Earlier this year, Christopher Oakley — a former Disney animator and Civil War buff — was working on a 3D animation of Honest Abe as part of his Virtual Lincoln Project, a student collaboration. (Oakley also teaches new media at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.)

While examining Gardner’s stereograph, Oakley wondered if the Library of Congress (which owns the image) had ever created a high-resolution copy of the photo’s left-sided negative. They hadn’t, but would do so for $73. “It’s the best $73 I ever spent,” Oakley told USA Today. “As soon as I had that in my hands, I was able to look at it much more clearly.”

…Oakley identified a man with a trimmed beard and stovepipe hat standing precisely where Lincoln would have stood, near a man Oakley determined to be then-Secretary of State William Seward, who was on the speaker’s platform. “All the landmarks — jawline, beard, hair, cheekbones, heavy brow, ears — line up perfectly,” Oakley told Smithsonian.

This find is especially fortuitous: Lincoln is currently en vogue in American popular culture, though he’s never really gone out vogue. Steven Spielberg’s 2012 Lincoln bio-pic was a big box office success, the ever prolific and award-garnering historian Eric Foner recently published a book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, that won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in history, and President Obama has been invoking Lincoln lately to boost support for his economic plan.

Lincoln has always been a popular American icon because he stands as a symbol; a reminder that the United States just may be able to overcome its worst instincts and flaws in order to live up to the lofty ideals set forth in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Lincoln, being both a human being and a politician, was by no means perfect, but that’s why Americans like him. In today’s particularly trying times, amidst economic recession, endless overseas wars, and social unrest at home, the U.S. is undergoing a deep process of soul-searching. Americans today are trying to reconnect with what Lincoln, facing civil war in his First Inaugural Address, termed “the better angels of our nature.”

Ever since his untimely assassination in 1865, Americans of all stripes have tried to find the real Lincoln. An estimated 15,000 books have been written about the 16th president, books that have ranged from award-winning biographies, to penetrating critiques of his wartime policies, to deeply disingenuous, loose-with-the-facts hatchet jobs. Even Spielberg’s well-made and acclaimed film, as historians have noted, took the occasional dramatic license with the facts, as Hollywood productions are want to do. Moreover, in terms of the major issues of his day, slavery and race, Lincoln has been called everything from a flaming racist, to a paternalistic sort of racist, to a pro-slavery demagogue, to a politically deft Abolitionist, to a champion of racial equality. Some people even think Lincoln was gay.

Yet, despite all of the debate over the real Lincoln, the 16th president’s historical legacy as an American political icon has largely been sealed: he was, after all, the president who saved the Union from political insurrection and emancipated the slaves, ushering in “a new birth of freedom” as he so famously stated in the “Gettysburg Address.” True, Lincoln, as was the case in his own lifetime, does have some enemies today. He remains a demonic symbol of alleged statist tyranny for modern libertarians seeking historical excuses for why their much yearned-for stateless, free market utopia has not yet materialized. But libertarians aside, Lincoln is largely revered by Americans not despite his flaws, but because of them. Lincoln was only human, after all, but for a man of his time, he overcame a lot of social, racial, political, and military obstacles and emerged from these challenges as a symbol of how the worst American traits can be vanquished.

This is why a newly discovered picture of Lincoln is such big news: the image shows the president as an ordinary guy, just one among a crowd. He isn’t grandly posed in a sanitized, Washington D.C. photographic studio setting. A small, blurry image of Lincoln the man helps us connect to Lincoln the man, a man who was flawed like any other human but who nonetheless achieved great things. After all, isn’t that the very ideal to which Americans strive? Sure it is dammit.

Lincoln as we usually see him: poised and presidential.

Lincoln as we usually see him: poised and presidential.

Like everyone in 19th century America, Abraham Lincoln was a racist in the sense that his views of African-Americans were filtered through the social lens that deemed blacks as inferior to whites in most ways. But Lincoln was also a man who struggled with balancing a personal objection to slavery with the knowledge that slavery as an institution was protected by the Constitution. It was Lincoln’s recognition of the realities of American racism and slavery, after all, that influenced his early support for a scheme to colonize black people to present-day Panama under the guise that white prejudice made racial co-habitation impossible in the United States. Despite these obstacles, of course, Lincoln eventually issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a wartime necessity before finally declaring the destruction of slavery a moral imperative to Union victory in the Civil War.

Lincoln’s wartime policies with regards to government power were controversial at the time and remain so to this day. Most famously, his suspension of Habeas Corpus and declaration of martial law for the purpose of silencing political enemies, like Ohio Democratic Party congressman Clement Vallandigham, spurred accusations of tyranny during the Civil War. These same actions still irk modern libertarians and other various “limited government” folks. Lincoln, however, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, believed that he was acting in the country’s best interest, though he was certainly aware that the chance to silence Copperhead Democrats was a welcome perk. Yet, as legal historian James Dueholm reminds us, “[u]nder the Constitution the federal government can unquestionably suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus if the public safety requires it during times of rebellion or invasion. The issue is whether Congress or the president holds this power.” Indeed, people often forget that suspension of Habeas Corpus isn’t, in and of itself, unconstitutional.

Ultimately, though, the Confederacy’s defeat ensured that Lincoln’s issues with civil liberties would come to be viewed as unfortunately necessary measures to ensuring Union victory. Again, Lincoln wasn’t perfect, but he was on the right side of history when justifying controversial government policies. Besides, he wasn’t alone in these matters: as historians like Mark Neely Jr. have noted, Confederate president Jefferson Davis also suspended Habeas Corpus, declared martial law in the South, imprisoned political rivals, and instituted the first draft in American history. Lincoln was hardly the only presidential tyrant during the Civil War.

Lincoln’s overcoming of so many wartime obstacles in the form of issues like race, government power, and political equality helped make him such an enduring symbol of America’s “better angels.” In modern American society, as very similar issues of racial justice, civil liberties, and political representation constantly occupy the headlines, we can look to Lincoln as a symbol of another age when these types of issues also tried American resolve. If Lincoln could overcome them, then so can we.

Criticisms that Lincoln was a flawed man and politician are beside the point here: its because of his flaws that he remains an icon, just as the long story of America’s overcoming its worst prejudices to expand equality to all has become integral to American identity itself. If a new picture of Lincoln, however small and blurry, helps us identify a little bit more with the man himself, all the better. Perhaps now we are all Lincoln, with the potential to connect to our “better angels.” And perhaps now I should stop writing, lest I run out of clichéd phrases.

Jeff Davis’ Big Cannon Balls and Music as American Motivator

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Over at the Slate Vault historical blog, Rebecca Onion has published an epic musical broadside ballad printed by Union partisans during the Civil War. The song and others like it mocked the foolish attempts of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to give the United States of America a proper smack-down, even as he used “big cannon balls” to “put in big licks.” Titled “Jeff Davis and His Uncle,” the song details a hapless Davis who “tried to whip his Uncle,” but failed miserably since “He hadn’t the courage for to Root Hog or Die.” Onion explains the “roots” of the ladder phrase as such:

The “Uncle” in the title of this ballad is “Uncle Sam,” a man who Davis “tried to whip, but found it wouldn’t pay.” “Root, hog, or die,” an expression that recurs in this song but that’s now largely forgotten (save, perhaps, by fans of June Carter Cash), derived from the farmer’s practice of turning pigs loose to forage for their own food. In the  19th century, Americans used the idiom to tell others to be self-reliant and strong or suffer the consequences.

This was just one of an endless series of popular song broadsides that circulated during the war. Partisans on both sides published wartime propaganda tunes of varying degrees of quality and classiness designed to stoke the passions of soldiers and civilians, politicians and officers alike. In a thoroughly informative new study of music during the Civil War, Christian McWhirter details the ways music served as a vehicle for patriotic expression, as a form of political protest, especially against the draft, and as a source of aural inspiration to get soldiers in the field to fight with more passion and vigor and civilians on the home front to sacrifice everything to the cause.

A somewhat less-violent modern-day equivalent of the use of music to inspire passion for your “side” is the ubiquitous presence of such overplayed anthems like Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” Europe’s existential masterpiece with the synth line that will NEVER leave your head, “The Final Countdown,” and Metallica’s ode to nighttime beach-soil delivery, “Enter Sandman” at major American sporting events. Music at sporting events serves to rally the respective partisans of both teams to cheer more enthusiastically for their side and make repeat visits to beer stands for $8 cups of Miller Lite. Much in the way Civil War era music inspired Union and Confederate partisans to fight on, sports anthems help modern Americans rally behind something larger than themselves, even if the national stakes aren’t quite as high as they were in the 1860s.

But this doesn’t mean that songs aimed at political figures like presidents have ever vanished from the American popular landscape. During his two terms in office, President George W. Bush inspired songs of loathing and loving, like Bright Eyes’ trite, if heartfelt critique of Bushism, “When the President Talks to God” and Pro-Dubya anthems like Darryl Worley’s even triter Bush endorsement, “Have You Forgotten?”

President Barack Obama has also received his fair share of support and loathing through music. Hank Williams Jr., who in the not-so-distant past was a country artist worth your attention, released a scathing anti-Obama anthem called “Keep the Change” that is about as subtle as a kick in the groin, while Bruce Springsteen performed his folky dirge anthem “Forward” at several Obama 2012 campaign rallies.

Music has always been a fixture on the American popular landscape. It has served as entertainment, artistic and political expression, and as an excuse to root for a bunch of guys in helmets crashing into each-other on a Sunday afternoon. As the above anti-Jeff Davis broadside and various pro and anti Bush and Obama tunes demonstrate, as long as Americans have had opinions about stuff, there has also been music created to spread those opinions. Go Cleveland Indians.