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I’m not sure what inspired Erik Wemple’s torrent of invective against the C&O Canal (“Hate Canal,” 11/7); I can only surmise that it was some unwholesome combination of P.J. O’Rourke, El Niño forecasts, and the advent of the line-item veto.
Not that it’s a bad articleit’s always entertaining to see a writer hone his polemical skills in this fashion. But Wemple sorely abuses the canal and the truth to make his rhetorical points, something that is not uncommon in this political town. A young pup like Wemple may not have been around in the early ’80s when David Stockman made his appearance on the national scene with a similarly brash confidence that the science of cost-benefit analysis would quickly dispel the primitive superstitions that determined so much of the federal budgetary process.
Young Turks like Wemple and Stockman offer many fresh insights, but without the moderating influence of experience, their theories often prove to be an intoxicating liqueur that obscures their better judgment. The truth is that the federal government spends an awful lot of money on public parks, museums, and monuments in the Washington area. A case in point is the restoration work on the statue of Freedom on the Capitol dome, which has run around a million dollars over the past few years. All for a statue that few of us will ever have an opportunity to visit, a statue that is frequently misidentified as that of a Native American or, less commonly, as Spiro Agnew. (I look forward to Wemple’s next article: “FreedomLet the Pigeons Have Her!” )
Major floods don’t generally occur twice in the same year, though it’s happened before. While it’s discouraging, it’s no reason to throw in the towel. The cost of the current repairs, when spread out over the 15-20 years between major floods, looks much more palatable. (Wemple offers the unconfirmed hypothesis that there is a trend toward increased flooding, but if that environmental scenario becomes fact, we’ll have a lot more to worry about than this canal.)
When he writes about recreation on the canal, Wemple reveals a pessimism so deep that you would swear he not only sees the glass as half empty, he’s liable to turn it upside down. Visitors to the canal are portrayed as pathetic or misguided in one way or another: old people, local yokels, or yuppies who take some strange pleasure in a pathway that travels through miles and miles of sycamores, maples, and papaws. Clearly, these are people whose interests and pleasures can be blithely ignored, unlike those of Washington City Paper editors, who see the true worth of the park in the miles and miles of trees just waiting to be turned into 18-by-22 sheets of newsprint.
I’ve seen a lot of people on the canal, from all walks of life: Vietnamese and Hispanic Americans who come down to the canal to fish and enjoy a place where they can be free, day laborers, soldiers, an elevator repairman walking llamas, families in pickup trucks, women wearing miner’s hats, Boy Scouts, and a peculiar couple with butterfly nets. Not all of them care about the history of the region, but there’s more history here than Wemple lets on, from frontier days to the Civil War. The alternative? The canal towpath ties 184 miles of river together; without it, much of the river shore would soon be carved up by developers and dotted with overpriced “MacMansions.” There are compromises that may need to be made to save the canal, such as the proposed spillway below Widewater, but let’s not throw the canal out with the water.
Let’s face it: The canal’s pleasures are subtle and not always appreciated by people who traffic in the angry dialogues of political muckraking. The vitriol in “Hate Canal” may also be a function of age and a generation raised on acid house, soundbites, and way too much coffee and sugar. I submit that when Wemple’s hormones die down, and the rage in his writing dissipates, he may actually come to find the canal a place of repose as so many of us do. I just hope it’s still there when he’s ready for it.