Niagara Falls and the Political Season

My wife and I travelled for a full week or so in September on a bus tour of parts of eastern United States and Canada.

It was one of those tightly scheduled lightning visits of the tourist hotspots of New York City, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Montreal, Quebec City and others. It’s surprising how many places you can get to when the tour guide gets you on the road by 6 a.m.

I came away with two dominant impressions.

The first circled around my thoughts in the last post about the spirit of place. In some ways being a tourist is about making pilgrimage in search of meaningful, or at least scenic, places.

So we visited the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the Port of Boston, Toronto’s CN Tower, the Citadel in Quebec City, and of course Niagara Falls.

Niagara Falls is a site of great natural beauty and of a most curious sort of human encrustation around it.

“Niagara” is of native origin and means, depending where you look it up, “strait” or “straight”, or more imaginatively, “thundering water.” As a location of such natural power, it has the myths and legends which places of significance accumulate.

NF StreetOne such legend that the tourists are told is about some Indian princess who haunts the place since the days she was used as a sacrifice to appease the god of the falls. Some writers call this a fabrication for the tourist trade.

There’s no doubt of the power of the experience of the falls, although the visitor now only can see the half of what the original natives and first European visitors took in, since the dams upstream restrict the flows by at least that much.

It may be that too much natural splendor, too much incitement of awe and wonder in the human breast also arouses fear.  Fear of the supernatural, fear of the elemental power and danger. Fear of something so irresistible and Olympian in its indifference to man’s petty pursuits that it incites a kind of despair.

How else to explain, as Patrick McGreevy writes in Imagining Niagara: The Meaning and Making of Niagara Falls, that Niagara Falls became a metaphor for death, of all things. There is actual danger there of course, as there is in many places. But the falls became not only associated with death, especially in the Victorian years of the 19th Century, but became a stage upon which to explore the abyss.

There was a family of riverfolk who bragged that they pulled out 500 corpses below the falls during a long period in the last century, many of them suicides. And of course we have all the daredevils who have plunged in barrels or other exotic containers over the falls, those who have walked on tightropes above it, and even in recent years, one unemployed fellow who plunged deliberately over the falls as a stunt without protective kit of any kind. And survived.

NF NightThis fear and fascination with death makes it clearer to me now the puzzling and overwhelming tourist tackiness of the Canadian town of Niagara Falls. (The town on the American side lacks this “development”, as it is not so favorably located to view the falls.)

I first visited Niagara Falls almost 30 years ago in late October during youthful bumming around and I was struck then by all the neon for the wax museums and bars along the nearly deserted streets of the Canadian town.

This year we visited at the tail end of the tourist season with wonderful weather. The thoroughfares were busy with visitors of every description and ethnic background. They mosied along at dusk, licking $5 ice cream cones, past such important establishments as a ferris wheel, Dracula’s Haunted Castle and The Criminal Hall of Fame Wax Museum.

Distant FallsThis is the true epitome of western civilization, I’m prone to think. This protective reaction to the genius loci of the mighty spectacle only a few steps away makes a kind of sense to me.

The second impression is about the history of the United States and this year’s political season.

Perhaps it is because I went to school in the States until the fourth grade, and I still suffer the indoctrination wrought in me by the patriotic tales of the Founding Fathers. But I have been a Canadian for many years now, and like to think that I have developed a moderately objective turn of mind.

I was surprised to find how stirred I still could be at the historical sites, monuments and statues of the important players in the American Revolution and the founding of the Republic. To have such men as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams and many others at hand to take on that challenge… It really was an unprecedented revolution, not only politically, but in the way of thinking about government and people. And they brought it to be. There were giants in those days.

Night FallsAnd now here we are today. I wonder how they spun political issues in the old days of the 18th Century. Probably sitting around taverns. Small gatherings outdoors where a man’s loud voice and oratory could hold sway.

Franklin and Jefferson could never have imagined the persuasive sweep and dominance of today’s mass media, and those who make a career out of manipulating it. And more, all the unchecked lying, misrepresentation and self-delusion of many aspects of the modern political process.

I think especially of the Hollow Man, John McCain, who obviously has sold his soul to the ambition of gaining the presidency. How else to explain his gyrations as he seeks some kind of (any!) political advantage, no matter how inauthentic, in the shifting of his many posturings. A sad end for a war hero.

And then we come to the breathtaking ignorance and limited horizon of Caribou Barbie (an amusing label I read by a sharp-spoken commentator on a political blog), otherwise known as Sarah Palin. Several commentators have noted that it is not simply disturbing that she doesn’t know the answers to various questions, but that she doesn’t understand the questions. She has obviously never given any thought to the affairs of the wider world outside Alaska. She has never had any intellectual or philosophical curiosity about important national or international issues, but lives in that right-wing Christian evangelical environment where any reading beyond the Reader’s Digest and the Bible is considered threatening and actually quite inadvisable.

The delusion of the Republican Party about the fitness of this potential president is awe-inspiring in its willfulness. Christian evangelism has trained many there to believe the most preposterous things, so it’s probably no surprise that their political passions are not susceptible to rational thought either.

But then, I think, perhaps it is the Age of Television that is the determining factor. (I recall that Peter Sellers’ movie, Being There.)

Obama and Biden have their faults but at least they portray intelligence and concern about the real future of their nation, and necessarily the rest of the continent, and the world.

At a deeper level, perhaps these two disparate impressions, of Niagara Falls and the American political process, are linked: the supreme tackiness that surrounds the grandeur of the falls, and the tawdriness that accompanies what has become the democratic process in that great nation.

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Notes on images: A few shots from our time in Niagara Falls.

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11 Comments on “Niagara Falls and the Political Season”


  1. When I watched Obama orate (and I think he epitomizes that word) I had the sense that here was an man who was alive with passion for his country. I don’t know his running mate and don’t have any sense of him at all, at this point.
    When I watch McCain and Palin, I have the impression that I’m watching two of those photographed life-sized, free-standing figures attached to cardboard, cut out in their own shapes. I’ve not felt the dimensions of these two, thought they might be well-rounded figures somewhere in their lives. They must be or have been, to have reached the positions that they have.
    It will be interesting to see how that whole election carries out.
    K

  2. fencer Says:

    Hey lookingforbeauty,

    Yes, with Obama, and even Biden at times at the Democratic national convention, one gets a sense of that art of speechifying which has almost, it seems, been lost in the Age of Television. It’s all about cadence and rhythm and emotional connection with a crowd heightened by the degree of sincerity involved. It’s not about “talking points.” It’s not like a cheerleader at a highschool football game.

    Before television and radio, such oratory is how people convinced each other, usually in much smaller groups than we would consider significant today with all the technological aids at hand.

    Interesting to see a kind of return to that, if only for this brief time…

    To me, the American experiment in democracy is on the line with this election. If you have potentially the most educated, informed electorate in the world of whom a majority deliberately prefer to be ignorant, than what say you, theoreticians of democracy.

    Regards

  3. openpalm Says:

    “The delusion of the Republican Party about the fitness of this potential president is awe-inspiring in its willfulness.” My favorite line in this very wonderful post. –op

  4. fencer Says:

    Hey openpalm,

    Thanks for stopping by and, of course, the compliment…

    Regards

  5. Eliza Says:

    Hi Fencer. I’ve never been to Niagara Falls but it’s one of the places I hope to be able to see in this life (here I am trying hard not to imitate the before-I-die books cramming bookstores). That’s an interesting theory of tourist commercialisation – humans trying to evade the strength and power of a place because they can’t understand it. I simply put it down to the profit factor – there’s money to be made from simplification and superficialisation (and I can be one of those tourist-suckers, too, I have to admit).

    On the US Presidential elections, thanks for your thoughtful take. We are thousands of miles away but Obama’s energy and message for change is sending ripples through our shores (our politically uncertain shores, for the first time since Independence). I watched his acceptance speech and watched a snippet of his debate with McCain, and came away impressed by his oratory skills and relieved somewhat by the evidence of intellect. For us outside of North America, a candidate who can offer a more reasonable approach to foreign policy would be a welcome change than a right-wing pro-war President.

  6. fencer Says:

    Hi Eliza,

    Of course you’re right, in a profit-seeking society, money does drive the engine at Niagara. I’m just curious about the direction… Dracula’s Castle is the biggest establishment on the main street. The town in places is like a Halloween theme park. There’s something very interesting in psychologic and sociologic ways goin’ on… Although I may be making more of it than it deserves.

    I hope you get a chance to go there sometime! It is a study in contrasts…

    I’m listening to the second Obama-McCain debate now… there’s a study in contrasts too.

    Regards

  7. forestrat Says:

    I live about an hour and a half from Niagara Falls so I have been there a bunch (even once when the water was shut off to the American side for some work on the rocks). We often take out of town guests there, but I cringe when they see how trashed the place has become.

    Personally I find the Canadian side more palatable than the American. At least there is some greenery and other things to see nearby besides the “street of fun” (we like the butterfly house and gardens). The American side is basically a parking lot and yards and yards of concrete.

    The one thing I like to do is take the boat ride up to the falls. If you stand at the rail, mentally block out the crowd around you, and let the huge deluge of water fill your whole field of vision, you can almost forget all the concrete and neon and really feel what it was like before it was “improved”.

    MDW

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    The Canadian side is definitely the most interesting to go to… we didn’t see it on our tour, but is there anything on the American side that takes advantage of the location (it sounds like there might be?)

    We took that Maid of the Mist tour and it was exciting in all the mist and spray and thunder from the falls…

    Regards

  9. forestrat Says:

    Maybe I’m just an old crank, but I find the American side of the falls to be amazingly really really dull and ugly. Maybe there is something new there that I have missed (although I doubt it) because for the last umpteen years I haven’t even stopped on that side – I just head right over the bridge to Canada. There are a couple of tour things (like the cave of the winds) and one or two restaurants and the wildly exciting visitor center. That about wraps it up.

    MDW

  10. qazse Says:

    Great post – haven’t been to Niagara Falls but have heard similar impressions although not as picturesque as yours. I especially liked, “Niagara Falls is a site of great natural beauty and of a most curious sort of human encrustation around it” .

    “The delusion of the Republican Party about the fitness of this potential president is awe-inspiring in its willfulness. Christian evangelism has trained many there to believe the most preposterous things, so it’s probably no surprise that their political passions are not susceptible to rational thought either.” Love this observation.

    Best

  11. fencer Says:

    Hey qazse,

    Great to hear from you… and thanks for your comments. I’m glad the election turned out the way it did.

    Regards


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