The Human Condition:

Fractured Reality – August 28, 2016

Garfield Mausoleum

Interior dome of the Garfield Mausoleum, Cleveland, Ohio

During the trip back East for my fiftieth high-school reunion this summer, I stopped in Cleveland to visit with one of my cousins. As part of our sightseeing in that lovely and too-often maligned city, we visited Lake View Cemetery, which features—along with the family plot of some early settlers my cousin was researching for a project—the Wade Memorial Chapel, with its Tiffany-designed interior, and the Garfield Mausoleum. At the latter, I learned about our twentieth president, a native son of Ohio, a scholar who raised himself out of poverty through education and strong values, and a beloved politician who was shot by a delusional office seeker just three months after his inauguration. The story of that assassination—along with much about the medicine, technology, and politics of the time—is told in Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic.

This current election year is a time of unusual and unbelievable surprises. One party has nominated a man with no political background whose id seems to be directly connected to his mouth. The other nominated a woman with a political history so shadowed that people casually dismiss emails suggesting she connived at rigging the primary election and sold facetime at the State Department for donations to her family’s charitable foundation. Nobody much likes either of them but adherents clings to their party’s candidate, either out of loyalty to one side or hatred and fear of the other. In the throes of this hot mess, I found the Millard book a refreshing and surprising return to an earlier, perhaps more innocent time. It was an age very different from our own.

First, the scars of the Civil War, which had ended just sixteen years earlier, had gone very deep. Half the county, laboring under an onerous Reconstruction that rivaled the reparations to which the Allied Powers had subjected Germany after World War I, had reason to distrust and fear the other half. James A. Garfield was not anyone’s first choice for president on the Republican ticket. In fact, his mission at the convention in Chicago had been to nominate a fellow Ohioan, former secretary of the treasury and brother of General William T. Sherman. But Garfield—who had spent his early years as a teacher, then fought as a general himself in the war, and finally served as a quietly respected U.S. congressman and senator—was such a polished speaker that people began to think of him as a candidate. With a rich field of other candidates, however—including a lackluster politician named Chester A. Arthur, who was backed by the most powerful and corrupt patronage wielder in the party, and who would later become Garfield’s vice president—the balloting went on for days. But when Garfield was finally nominated, the country rallied to him. His message—when he chose to give it, which was seldom, because he did not think it proper to campaign actively—was full of reconciliation, good sense, and fair dealing for all citizens, including former Confederates and the recently emancipated black population.

And then, when Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau, a man suffering from psychotic, disorganized, and delusional thinking who today would be diagnosed as schizophrenic, the nation reacted with grief and horror. When this disappointed office seeker let it be known that he supported Chester Arthur and his corrupt political backer, Roscoe Conkling, the pair had to go into seclusion to avoid being lynched. Even in a country as divided and confused as America was in the wake of bitter internal war and a failed peace effort, people could come together in a common feeling of disdain and outrage.

The bullet wound in Garfield’s back, which had avoided the spine and major organs, was not immediately fatal. In fact, many soldiers during the war had taken similar wounds and lived on, carrying the bullets or shrapnel inside their bodies for years. However, President Garfield received the best medical attention of the time, which included his physicians’ determination to find and remove the bullet. Since American doctors did not yet subscribe to the germ theory of disease and the antiseptic practices of British surgeon Joseph Lister, the president’s attendants probed his wound repeatedly with metal and ceramic rods and even with their own fingers, none of which they washed first, let alone sterilized. The wound became infected repeatedly as Garfield lingered, flat on his back in bed, for almost three months. In an interesting sidelight, telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell tried to develop and use a device, originally created for neutralizing electrical interference on phone lines, as a means of locating the bullet but this early form of magnetic scanning was not successful.1

As the president lay dying in the White House, then recovering, then dying again, the doctors gave out bulletins several times a day describing his progress. These were transmitted to major cities and towns and posted outside telegraph and newspaper offices, where citizens gathered by the thousands to follow the news of Garfield’s hoped-for recovery. Those who lived near Washington camped out in the park across from the White House awaiting developments.

Why do I find this story so interesting? Because it makes such a marked contrast with our own turbulent times.

In 1880 this was a country, less than twenty years from a state of political secession and all-out war, that could come together both politically and emotionally. First, they would nominate and elect a relatively unknown senator to become president, responding to his good nature, positive qualities, and inspiring personal story. Then, when he was struck down, they would unite with even stronger feelings of outrage and grief.

Today, we have endured in our recent history no break or disjunction so great as the Civil War. In fact, we have much to celebrate and experience forces that should unify us: the end of the Cold War within most people’s living memory; unprecedented growth in scientific discoveries and inventions, and the spread of their application into people’s daily lives; and a robust economy that—despite a series of booms and busts in the past fifty years—continues to grow and expand, providing a standard of living for the average American that’s still the envy of the world. Given these good times, with no obvious, existential threats to our way of life and national security,2 one would think we might look for the gentlest, wisest, most inspiring people to lead us. Instead, we fight and tear down, and claw at the eyes of those who would try to lead—until only the toughest, most armored, eyeless creatures will choose to compete for … not for the dignity of leadership, but for the opportunities of pure power.

In 1880 this was a country with a relatively primitive communications system. True, the railroads and the telegraph had been operating and opening the countryside for several decades, and the telephone had just been invented and was rapidly spreading in and between the urban centers. But people still took in their account of events and absorbed their political opinions through their local daily newspapers, which had seen nothing of the amalgamation of news empires that would take place in the coming decades and into the twentieth century. And yet the story of the president’s condition could disseminate rapidly and relatively uniformly from the doctors at his bedside to the posters and placards outside the telegraph office in every community. What’s surprising is that, while people might speculate about Guiteau’s motives and connections, and Garfield’s advancing and retreating waves of infection whipsawed people’s hopes and fears, the stream of information seemed relatively unburdened by wild fantasies.

Today, with so much consolidation of our news feeds—but also with the dispersion of public opinion through alternative news sources and directly through social media—unfettered rumors and swirling conspiracy theories would tend to overlay such an event. A president who lingered for months at the point of death would, like the cat in Schödinger’s box, be both alive and dead, as well as sighted simultaneously golfing on Martha’s Vineyard and whooping it up at the Bunny Ranch in Nevada. The president’s assassin would be identified with three different personalities and six different co-conspirators, all discussed as verifiable truth in the media, as well as flocks of supporters who would idolize him as a saint and detractors who would see in him the Antichrist. And every one of 320 million Americans, along with several billion more active viewers and listeners around the world, would have their own understanding of and opinions about the facts of the case. Everyone has a camera, an imagination, expertise with Photoshop, and access to the worldwide web. Everyone makes up their own story.

Back in 1880, when people had to ride the rails for days to go from one side of the country to the other, and had to sit down and read page-long stories in the print media to remain informed, the country seems to have been a lot more unified. Today, with the ability to fly from breakfast in New York to lunch in San Francisco—well, a late lunch, considering the travel time plus time zone differences—and with information freely flowing in spoken words, images, and seven varieties of text through the airwaves and different networks, the country is fragmented and our reality fractured.

As a science fiction writer, I try to understand all this. Anyone looking forward from 1880, and surmising about—or even actually being told about—the advances in media technology that were coming in the twenty-first century, would predict greater public cohesion, more uniformity of thought, and greater access to and reliance on provable facts.3 Instead, we have just the opposite. Not a thousand points of light, but a thousand points of different and irreconcilable worldview.

This tells me that, with the way our technology is advancing exponentially, and despite the best analytical imagination I can supply, life and the nature of our political, economic, moral, and spiritual reality at the dawn of the twenty-second century will be essentially unknowable.

Damn! And I thought I was just getting good at this prediction thing.

1. With modern medicine, of course, the bullet would have been found by x-ray and removed in a sterile surgical procedure that first afternoon. For comparison, consider how quickly President Reagan recovered from a similar attack.

2. Yes, we have troubles: weak allies in Europe who are floundering under a broken political and economic system; a resurgent Russia flexing its muscles to the east of them and looking to resurrect the old Soviet hegemony; a resurgent China seeking to expand into its ancient cultural hegemony over all of Asia; economic stagnation in Central and South America driving waves of job-seeking immigrants across our southern border; and political chaos in Africa and the Middle East driving religious and political refugees into the modern, developed states of Europe and perhaps eventually into this country. But all this is business as usual, because the world has been in flux and turmoil ever since the rise of nation-states four thousand years ago, except for those brief periods when Rome ruled the Mediterranean or Britain governed a patchwork of colonies across the globe. None of the current turmoil spells an imminent threat to our continued existence as a nation or a society—not unless we let it.

3. Oh, for the days when a photograph was accepted as visual proof of a single, solid reality.