Archive for the ‘Heroism’ Category

Thanksgiving

November 27, 2014

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. It is most unfortunate that this day has become little more than an excuse to gorge on turkey. Even worse, the obscenity known as Black Friday has begun to creep back into the holiday making what ought to be a day of giving thanks to the deity a day of frenzied shopping. We in America have perhaps more to be thankful for than any other nation in history and we are probably the biggest ingrates.

Well, anyway, the whole mythology surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday,with the turkey meal, etc is based on the Thanksgiving celebration held by the settlers of Plymouth colony in 1621. They had a lot to be thankful for. These Pilgrims had decided to immigrate to the New World so that they could practice their religion freely. They had intended to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River but their departure from England on the Mayflower had been delayed and the trip across the Atlantic had been rough. They reached America farther north then they had intended,at Provincetown Harbor in November 1620. While they did not really have a legal right to create a colony in what is now Massachusetts, no one really wanted to spend the winter at sea so on December 21, 1620 the Pilgrims began to build the settlement at Plymouth.

Model of a 17th century English merchantman sh...

Would you spend any more time in a leaky ship like this than you had to? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first winter at the new colony was very hard. About half of the colonists had died by spring. By what must have seemed incredible luck or divine providence, the colonists were able to make contact with two Natives who could speak English. One of these was named Samoset and he had learned some English from English trappers and fishermen. He introduced the Pilgrims to the other man, Squanto, who had a truly remarkable life. Captured by Englishmen, he was taken to England and instructed in the English language in the hope that he could serve as an interpreter. When he was brought back to New England, he was captured again, this time by members of John Smith’s expedition who planned to sell captured Indians as slaves in Spain. In Spain, some friars learned of this plan and had the Indians freed and instructed in the Catholic religion. Squanto was able to make his way back to England and then across the Atlantic. There, he discovered that his whole tribe had been destroyed by the diseases, probably smallpox, that the Europeans had already unwittingly brought to the New World.

Squanto was willing to help the Pilgrims and taught what they needed to know to survive in New England.The harvest in the summer of 1621 was good enough that the Pilgrims did not need to fear starvation that winter. They had a feast that Autumn to celebrate their good fortune and to give thanks to God. This celebration was not considered to be anything very remarkable. Thanksgiving celebrations were fairly common at the time, especially among people who had successfully made the difficult and dangerous voyage across the ocean. It was not really the first Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon G...

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930). The First Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth in 1621. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There were proclamations of thanksgiving at various times in American history, especially during the Revolutionary War, but the holiday we know of as Thanksgiving really began in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that a national day of Thanksgiving was to be celebrated on the final Thursday of November. It might not seem that there was all that much to be thankful for in the middle of the Civil War but the tide was turning in the North’s favor after the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg that July and the country was continuing to grow in strength and prosperity despite the horrors of the war. Lincoln’s proclamation set the date for the national holiday that has been celebrated ever since. Franklin Roosevelt set the date a week earlier in 1939 in the hope that an earlier date would mean a longer shopping season for Christmas, thus helping the economy still mired in the Great Depression. This was not without controversy and in October 1941 Congress officially set the date of Thanksgiving on the fourth, and almost always the last, Thursday in November.

So,enjoy your turkey but please spare a moment or two to give thanks to the deity you worship. If you happen to be an American you really are one of the luckiest people on Earth.

The Bubble Boy Cured

November 20, 2014

One of the funniest episodes of the sitcom Seinfeld was The Bubble Boy, which naturally featured a boy with a severe immune disorder who lived in a “bubble”. The main characters of the show; Jerry, Elaine, George and George’s girlfriend Susan are all going  on a trip to Susan’s family’s cabin with a stop along the way for Jerry to meet a young fan of his who happened to be a bubble boy. Driving in two separate cars, the group becomes separated and George and Susan arrive at the bubble boy’s house not knowing where Jerry and Elaine are or how late they might be.

 

This episode aired back in 1992 and advancing technology has rendered the premise of a party being lost and separated obsolete. In our age of ubiquitous cell phones, Jerry Seinfeld and his friends could have easily kept in touch with one another. Even better, recent advances in medical research may soon make the whole concept of keeping children with severe immune disorders in sterile environments, or bubbles, as obsolete as the iron lung or bleeding with leeches. Here is the article from Time with the good news.

Alysia Padilla-Vaccaro and Christian Vaccaro owe their daughter’s life to stem cells. Evangelina, now two, is alive today because she saved herself with her own bone marrow cells.

 

Evangelina, a twin, was born with a severe immune disorder caused by a genetic aberration that makes her vulnerable to any and all bacteria and viruses; even a simple cold could be fatal. But doctors at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Broad Stem Cell Research Center gave her a new treatment, using her own stem cells, that has essentially cured her disease. She’s one of 18 children who have been treated with the cutting-edge therapy, and the study’s leader, Dr. Donald Kohn, says that the strategy could also be used to treat other gene-based disorders such as sickle cell anemia.

Known to doctors as adenosine deaminase (ADA)-deficient severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), it’s better known as “bubble boy” disease, since children born with the genetic disorder have immune systems so weak that they need to stay in relatively clean and germ-free environments. Until Evangelina and her sister Annabella were 11 months old, “We were gowned and masked and did not go outside,” says their mother Alysia Padilla-Vaccaro. “Our children did not physically see our mouths until then because we were masked all the time. We couldn’t take them outside to take a breath of fresh air, because there is fungus in the air, and that could kill her.”

 

The only treatments for SCID are bone marrow transplants from healthy people, ideally a matched sibling; the unaffected cells can then repopulate the immune system of the baby with SCID. But despite being her twin, Annabella wasn’t a blood match for her sister, nor were her parents. Padilla-Vaccaro and her husband, Christian, were considering unrelated donors but were concerned about the risk of rejection. “We would be trying to fix one problem and getting another,” she says.

That’s when the doctors at the Children’s Hospital at Orange County, where Evangelina was diagnosed, told her parents about a stem cell trial for SCID babies at UCLA, led by Dr. Donald Kohn. “As soon as they said trial, I thought, ‘my kid is dead,” says Padilla-Vaccaro of the last resort option. But a dozen children born with other forms of SCID—in which different mutations caused the same weak immune systems—who were successfully treated by Kohn convinced the couple that the therapy was worth trying. Kohn had one spot left in the trial and was willing to hold it for Evangelina until she matured more. Born premature, she was diagnosed at six weeks old and needed more time for what was left of her immune system to catch up to weather the procedure.

When she was two months old, Evangelina was admitted to UCLA and had bone marrow drawn from her tiny hip. It contained the stem cells that go on to develop into all of the cells in the blood and immune systems. Kohn treated them with gene therapy, co-opting a modified virus to carry the healthy ADA gene so it could infect the stem cells from Evangelina’s bone marrow. The idea was that by transplanting these healthy ADA-containing cells back into Evangelina, she would soon be making her own healthy immune cells. And because they were made from her own cells, her body wouldn’t reject them.

“After the transplant of this miraculous tube of stem cells, which literally took five minutes, we had to just wait and see for a good six weeks,” says Padilla-Vaccaro. “The week after Christmas [in 2012], Dr. Kohn came in and told me, ‘It worked.’ It worked. Those words…besides the birth of my children, that day will always be the best day in my life.”

There is more about how Dr. Kohn developed his procedure.

This is truly wonderful news and I hope that the techniques used in cases like this can be used to treat or cure other genetic diseases. As Glenn Reynolds might say, faster please.

 

Veterans Day

November 11, 2014

Today is Veterans Day. This day began as Armistice Day, November 11 1918 being the day that Germany signed the armistice that ended World War I. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day in 1919 to celebrate the courage of the men who fought and died in that war. The day was changed in 1954 in order to honor the veterans of all the wars of America.

I don’t have anything else to say except Thank You to all of the veterans who have served your country. You are better men and women than I am.

 

The Election of 1828

November 10, 2014

The election of 1828 was a rematch between the two major candidates of 1824, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Jackson believed, with good reason, that he had been cheated out of the presidency in the last election and he was eager for revenge. For his part, Adams had not had a particularly successful presidency in part because of the irregularities of his election and the continuing hostility of Jackson’s supporters. Adams couldn’t imagine that a man like Jackson could possibly be competent to be president.

But you mustn’t think that this contest was nothing more than a personal quarrel between the two candidates. This election was nothing less than an epic struggle to determine who would rule the new republic, a small moneyed elite based in the East or the sovereign people, as least according to Jackson’s supporters. Adams’s people viewed it as a battled for control between rule the respectable stakeholders in the country and rule by an ignorant mob. The United States was becoming more democratic. In the election of 1828 only two states, Delaware and South Carolina still had their state legislatures choose their electors. Everywhere else, the Electors were chosen by popular vote.

The second party system was still developing and both candidates were theoretically of the same party. There were no caucuses this time. King Caucus was finished. The two candidates were nominated by state legislatures and special conventions. Vice President John C. Calhoun opted to run with Andrew Jackson so John Quincy Adams selected his Secretary of the Treasury, Richard Rush as his running mate.

As President, Adams had favored a more centralized government with protective tariffs to promote industry, a national bank, and federal support for internal improvements such as building roads and canals. Adams also believed that the federal government should promote education and science. In this, he was, perhaps, ahead of his time. Many of his countrymen did not see any use for such frivolities. Adams did come across as rather too intellectual for many Americans at the time, who valued the practical wisdom of a man like Jackson.

It was a little harder to determine what policies Jackson favored since he didn’t have much to say, at first. In general, he seemed to prefer a more decentralised Union with a smaller government closer to the people. Jackson tended to oppose using the federal government to sponsor internal improvements, believing this to be mostly a duty of the states, though he did agree to using surplus federal revenue to help the states fund such improvements. He believed the government should live within its means and not borrow. He passionately opposed the idea of a national bank.

If Jackson was a little vague on the policies he preferred, he was not at all uncertain about the means to win elections and obtain office. He understood that the key to success in politics was organization. Jackson did not share his opponent’s, and the founding fathers’, disdain for political parties. He believed that parties were essential to preserving democratic rule and liberty. Immediately after the election of 1824, Jackson and his supporters began to build up a party organization to oppose Adams in Congress and prepare the way for Jackson’s campaign in 1828. This party organization was first called simply the “Friends of Jackson”but before long they began referring to themselves as the Democratic Party. Thus was formed one of the two great parties that have dominated American politics.

This new Democratic party began promoting Jackson’s cause with partisan newspapers, parades, rallies and all the paraphernalia of what came to be American presidential campaigns. They referred to Jackson, the war hero, as Old Hickory and carried around hickory sticks. They made much of the corrupt bargain that had placed Adams in the White House against the will of the people.  Jackson was a man of the people against those East Coast Elites championed by Adams, another emerging theme in American politics. Jackson was not as educated as Adams, who knew his Greek and Latin, but he had the practical common sense of the common man. It might be fair to say that Jackson was the first truly American politician.

John Quincy Adams and his supporters tried to fight back. They overcame their dislike of parties and organized themselves into the “National Republicans“. They had their own newspapers, parades, rallies, etc, but somehow they couldn’t match the enthusiasm of Jackson’s supporters. They relentlessly attacked Jackson’s character and supposed wartime heroics. Six men who Jackson had had hanged for desertion were transformed into martyrs who had served their time and only wanted to go home. Jackson was said to have indulged in gambling, cock fighting, slave trading, drunkenness, theft, lying and even murder. Jackson’s mother was a prostitute brought over to America by British soldiers. Once again the  irregularities of Andrew Jackson’s marriage to his wife, Rachel, were brought up, and Anti-Jackson newspapers referred to them as a “convicted adulteress and her paramour husband”. Rachel Jackson died soon after the election and Andrew Jackson was convinced that these slurs had killed her. He never forgave his enemies for that.

The election was not a close one. Jackson received 642,553 popular votes (55.9%) and 178 electoral votes. Adams got 500,897 popular votes (43.7%) and 83 electoral votes. Jackson swept the nation except for New England, Maryland, Delaware,and New Jersey which went to Adams. New York’s Electors were split 20 to 16 in favor of Jackson.

The Election of 1828

The Election of 1828

 

Andrew Jackson got to be president, but there is no need to feel sorry for John Quincy Adams. He went on to have a distinguished career in the House of Representatives where, among other things, he fought the good fight against slavery.

General Tso’s Chicken

September 21, 2014

The other day, I was eating at a Chinese restaurant and I noticed that one of the items at the buffet was called “General Tso’s chicken“. I started to wonder who General Tso could be and why he has a chicken dish named after him. Was he, perhaps, the Chinese equivalent of Colonel Sanders? Naturally, I consulted that infallible fount of knowledge and wisdom that is Wikipedia.

Well, as it turns out, General Tso was a nineteenth century Chinese military leader who helped to suppress some of the rebellions that were endemic in the last century of the Qing  Dynasty. His name was actually Tso Tsung-T’ang, or Zuo Zongtang using the Pinyin system of romanization. Zuo Zongtang was born in Xiangyin County in the province of Hunan in the year 1812. His family was poor but he was ambitious so he took the Imperial civil service exam seven times, failing each time. This was no cause for shame, the vast majority of candidates did not pass, but it did limit his options for advancement. Discouraged, Zuo Zongtang retired to his family farm to raise silkworms and study. The world was changing and new ways of rising in China were opening up. It was becoming increasingly obvious that China had fallen behind the European nations in science, technology and military power.  Zuo became aware of China’s increasing backwardness and he was one of the first Chinese to study Western science and culture. Zuo became known and respected as an expert in the new, foreign learning.

Zuo Zongtang

The Man(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the Taiping Rebellion broke out in 1850, Zuo became an advisor to Zeng Guofan, the governor of Hunan, who was tasked with raising an army to defeat the Taiping rebels after they had fought and destroyed the regular Qing armies in the region. By 1860 Zuo was given command of an army and he managed to clear the rebels out of Hunan and Guangxi provinces. He and Zeng captured Nanjing in 1864, ending the Taiping Rebellion at last. In 1865 Zuo was appointed Viceroy over the provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang. He was also made Commissioner of Naval Industries and opened China’s first modern shipyard and naval academy in the city of Fuzhou.

province-english

In 1867, Zuo became Viceroy of Shaanxi and Gansu provinces and was ordered to put down the Nian Rebellion which had plagued northern China the same way the Taipings had been in the south.  He accomplished this task by the following year and was then sent out to the west to deal with the Muslim rebels in the autonomous region of Xinjiang.  By 1878, Zuo Zongtang had crushed the rebels, converted Xinjiang into a province of China, with himself as the first governor and had persuaded the Russians to withdraw from the border regions they had occupied in the chaos of the rebellion. Zuo Zongtang has seen to it that his troops were armed with modern weapons and so was able to credibly threaten war against the under manned Russian outposts. This was one of the few times in the nineteenth century in which the Chinese were able to resist a foreign power.

Zuo Zongtang was promoted to the Grand Council in 1880. Zuo was not really a politician or bureaucrat and didn’t much like the post so in 1881 he was made governor of Liangjiang. His last military commission was as Commander in Chief of the Army and Inspector General of coastal defenses in Fujian when the Sino-French War broke out over the status of  Vietnam in 1884. Again, the Chinese army under Zuo performed somewhat better than they had against European armies previously and they managed to give the French a hard time in Vietnam and southern China. The French won the war, however, largely because the French Navy could bombard the coastal cities of China at will. Zuo Zongtang died in 1885, just after the war ended, a national hero.

That explains who General Tso was, but how did he get a the chicken named after him? Did he work as a chef when he wasn’t leading armies? Was sweet, spicy deep-fried chicken a particular favorite of his?

PS GeneralTsosChicken1

His chicken(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The truth is that nobody seems to know how General Tso’s chicken came to be named after General Tso. He couldn’t have possibly eaten it. The dish was actually invented in America, by Chinese immigrants who had fled China after the Communist takeover in 1949. The Shun Lee Palace in New York City claims to be the first restaurant to serve General Tso’s chicken in 1972, but that claim has been contested. Peng Jia was Chiang Kai-Shek‘s chef when Chiang fled to Taiwan and in 1973 he opened a restaurant in New York. Peng claims to have invented the dish while experimenting with ways to make Hunanese cuisine more palatable to non-Hunanese, mostly by adding sugar and sweetening it. Whatever the case, General Tso’s chicken was unknown in China before the Chinese government opened China to foreign trade and contacts. Since then, Chinese chefs have successfully introduced the dish to China although it is not a favorite in General Tso’s native Hunan. Most Hunanese consider General Tso’s chicken to be too sweet.

 

 

Thirteen Years

September 11, 2014

It has been thirteen years since 9/11. We said that we would never forget, but I am afraid we are already forgetting. A person turning eighteen this year, old enough to vote, was only five on that fateful day. I don’t imagine that they would have any clear personal memories of that day, unless they or someone close was personally affected. I am afraid that we are trying to forget the most important lesson of 9/11, that the world is a dangerous place, and there are people out there who would like to destroy us, even if Barack Obama, the lightworker, is the president. Judging from the headlines, we are already relearning the fact that withdrawing from the world will not make the bad guys decide to leave us alone. ISIS has already murdered at least two of our people and has threatened to attack our cities. I have no doubt they would have already, if they had the means. So, we are going to war in Iraq once again.

Well, I will never forget that dreadful day thirteen years ago, no matter how long I live. We will just have to keep telling the story to the younger generations so they will not have to experience any such attacks for themselves. With that in mind, I am going to copy what I wrote two years ago.

On that Tuesday morning, I was at work, driving from Madison to North Vernon when I got a call from my wife. She asked me if I were listening to the radio. I was not. She told me to turn it on because something terrible was happening. I turned my car radio on and listened to the coverage of the attack.

I went about my duties at the stores in North Vernon in a sort of state of shock.  The North Vernon WalMart and Jay C played continuing news coverage of the day’s events instead of the usual soothing Musak. Not too many people were working or shopping in the stores. They were mostly just listening.

I had to go to Seymour for a meeting that afternoon. On the way I noticed that some gas stations had raised the price of gasoline to a then unheard of price of $5 per gallon. At the meeting, no one wanted to discus the business at hand. Instead we talked about the terrorist attack. It seemed certain to us all that more attacks were on the way and that this time we couldn’t just launch a few missiles, blow up some tents, and then move on. We were in for a long fight.

I don’t remember much about the rest of that day. I went home but I don’t remember much about it.

I was once in the World Trade Center. I was in New York with some friends as a sort of tourist and we took the elevator to the top floor of one of the twin towers. There was a gallery up there where you could look out over the city of New York. The day was foggy so I didn’t see anything. They had a gift shop in the center section of the floor. It sickens me to think that the people who worked there went to work one morning, and then had to choose between burning to death or jumping, Not to mention the tourists, who only wanted to look at the city.

It still sickens me to think about the people who were only doing their jobs having to lose their lives.

twin

 

Gerbert d’Aurillac

September 8, 2014

The Middle Ages are well-known as the Christian Dark Ages, a time in which the Catholic Church controlled the intellectual life of Europe and in which any learning, science or independent thought was ruthlessly suppressed. This was a time in which people were proud of being ignorant and viewed learning with suspicious as a form of witchcraft. As Ayn Rand put it,

The infamous times you call the Dark Ages were an era of intelligence on strike, when men of ability went underground and lived undiscovered, studying in secret, and died, destroying the works of their mind, when only a few of the bravest martyrs remained to keep the human race alive. Every period ruled by mystics was an era of stagnation and want, when most men were on strike against existence, working for less than their barest survival, leaving nothing but scraps for their rulers to loot, refusing to think, to venture, to produce, when the ultimate collector of their profits and the final authority on truth or error was the whim of some gilded degenerate sanctioned as superior to reason by divine right and by grace of a club.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the intellectual stagnation of this period than the life and career of Gerbert d’Aurillac.

English: Impression of Pope Sylvester II, born...

English: Impression of Pope Sylvester II, born Gerbert d’Aurillac.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gerbert d’Aurillac was a French cleric and scholar who lived from 946-1003. He was born in the town of Belliac and in 963 he entered the monastery of St. Gerald of Aurillac. His intelligence impressed the abbot of the monastery and when Count Borrell of Barcelona visited in 967, the abbot asked the count to take Gerbert with him to Spain so he could study mathematics. At this time Spain was divided between the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate and the Christian Franks, like Count Borrell, who owed nominal allegiance to France. Moslem Spain was experiencing a golden age of learning in philosophy, natural sciences and mathematics and Gerbert eagerly learned all he could from both Christians and Moslems. In 969, Count Borrell took Gerbert with him to Rome where he met Pope John XIII and the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. Otto hired Gerbert to tutor his son, the future Otto II and later allowed Gerbert to study and then teach at the cathedral school at Rheims.

Gerbert took back to Christendom the learning he had acquired in Spain. He introduced arabic numerals to Europe, though they didn’t catch on until the time of Fibonacci two centuries later. He also reintroduced the abacus, which had been lost in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, along with astronomical equipment and learning, including an astrolabe and he constructed an organ powered by hydraulics. He became the foremost scholar and scientist in Christian Europe. He experimented with building mechanical clocks. Naturally, there were rumors that Gerbert dabbled in sorcery. He was supposed to have a bronze head that could answer questions put to it. Some said he had learned more than mathematics and astronomy in Spain. He was also said to have learned forbidden arts and to have made pacts with devils.

So, what happened to this scholar in the Age of Ignorance and Superstition. Was he burned at the stake for witchcraft? Defrocked and expelled from the clergy? Executed as a heretic. No, they made him pope. Gerbert d’Aurilac reigned as Pope Silvester II from 999 to 1003. He did not get to be pope because of his scholarship, to be sure, though his intellectual reputation did help. Remember that he was the tutor to the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II. Otto II thought much of Gerbert and made him the abbot of the monastery of Bobbio. This did not work out well so Otto gave him other posts, including tutoring his son Otto III, who reigned as Holy Roman Emperor from 996 to 1002. Otto III was only 16 when he became emperor, but he already had big plans to restore the Roman Empire to its former glory. As part of his dream, Otto III patronised learning and helped the careers of men like Gerbert. Unfortunately, because he took the Roman part of Holy Roman Emperor seriously, he tended to interfere in Italian and Roman politics and to neglect his German subjects.

Pope Gregory V was Otto III’s cousin so he made Gerbert Bishop of Ravenna and when Pope Gregory died in 999, Otto thought he would be a natural choice as pope and used his influence as Holy Roman Emperor to get Gerbert the job. Gerbert took the name Silvester II,  after Sylvester I, who had been pope during the reign of the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine. If Otto III wanted to restore the Roman Empire, than Gerbert would play the same helpful role that Sylvester I did with Constantine.

English: Pomoc Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor

English: Pomoc Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sylvester III wasn’t a particularly successful pope. He Romans resented Otto III for his interest in Italian politics and they disliked having one of his associates imposed upon them as Pope. The Romans viewed Sylvester II as a low-born foreigner and rebelled against him and Otto III in 1001. Sylvester II was obliged to flee to Ravenna. Meanwhile Otto III died in 1002 while campaigning in Italy, his dreams of restoration unfulfilled. Sylvester II was able to return to Rome, but he died the following year. His legacy turned out to be more lasting than his patrons as he had helped to inaugurate the revival of learning in Europe that became known as the High Middle Ages.

I hope the story of Gerbert d’Aurillac aka Pope Sylvester II will help to put to rest the idea of the Christian Dark Ages. The learned men of Europe were aware that they had fallen behind the Muslims of Spain and had lost much that was known in ancient times. They were not proud of this ignorance nor were their minds on strike. They were trying their best to learn what they could from others.  It is curious that when the Europeans began to make contact with other civilizations, the Muslim world, Indian, China, for the most part these other peoples were not very interested in learning about the, by then, superior technology of the Europeans. Perhaps it was this curiosity and willingness to learn from other cultures shown by men like Gerbert d’Aurillac, that caused the West to pull ahead and become the most advanced civilization in the world.

 

Carthago Delenda Est

September 6, 2014

That is, “Carthage must be destroyed”. These words were spoken by the Roman statesman and Senator Marcus Porcius Cato, or Cato the Elder at the end of every speech from around 157 BC to the beginning of the third and last Punic War. Who was Cato and why was he determined to have Carthage destroyed?

Carthage was a city in North Africa that was founded by Phoenicians, or Punics as the Romans rendered the name, about the same time as Rome. Carthage proved to have an excellent harbor and an advantageous position for commerce and soon came to dominate the western Mediterranean, rivaling the Greek colonies at Sicily and southern Italy. While Rome was slowly gaining the mastery of the Italian peninsula, Carthage built an empire based on trade along the North African coast and the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, along with the western half of Sicily. Carthage was originally ruled by kings, but they steadily lost power and by 300 BC, Carthage was, like Rome, a republic. The Carthaginians spoke the Semitic language language of their ancestors in Phoenicia and their culture was much the same as that found in ancient Phoenicia or Canaan. Unlike the Romans, the Carthaginians were never a particularly warlike or militaristic people. They preferred to hire mercenaries to do their fighting. They were excellent sailors however, and had a first class navy.

Carthage and its dependencies in the 3rd centu...

Carthage and its dependencies in the 3rd century BC. It was one of a number of Phoenician settlements in the western Mediterranean. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As Rome grew in power and completed its conquest of Italy, it was inevitable that the two powers would clash. The First Punic War lasted from 264 to 241 BC. The war began in Sicily between allies of the Romans and Carthaginians. Although there was fighting in Sicily, most of the First Punic War was a naval conflict. This was a problem for the Romans because they had no navy but the Romans proved to be determined and resourceful. They built a navy of ships copied from a shipwrecked Carthaginian warship.  Since the Romans were unused to battles between ships, they invented a sort of boarding ramp with a claw or beak which they called a “corvis”, the Latin word for crow. Instead of outmaneuvering the Carthaginian ships, the Romans would lower the corvis onto the enemy ship and Roman soldiers would board and capture it. In this way, Rome’s greatest disadvantage in the war was changed into their greatest advantage.

Romans attached corvi to their ships so they c...

Romans attached corvi to their ships so they could board and seize enemy vessels. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Romans won the First Punic War. They gained control of Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia and Carthage was obliged to pay a heavy indemnity. Naturally, the Carthaginians were unhappy with the outcome and wanted revenge. Carthage continued to prosper and the Carthaginians built a new empire in Spain under the command of one of their leading generals Hamilcar Barca. Hamilcar was determined to avenge the loss of the First Punic War and and his son Hannibal, considered to be the greatest general and tactician of ancient times, swore an oath of undying enmity towards Rome.

Depiction of Hannibal and his army crossing th...

Depiction of Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps during the Second Punic War. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Second Punic War was fought between 218-201 BC. This was largely Hannibal’s war. Hannibal concluded that the best way to defeat the Romans was to take the fight to Italy and so he gathered his army of Carthaginians and Spanish allies and march overland from Spain, through the Alps to Italy. Hannibal defeated every Roman army sent against him, often inflicting devastating casualties, but he lacked the men and siege equipment to actually capture Rome. Moreover, the Italian cities did not defect to his side in the numbers he hoped. Most Italians remained loyal to Rome. Once again,the Romans proved to be resourceful and they decided that if they could not defeat Hannibal, they could defeat Carthage by fighting where he was not. The Romans sent expeditionary forces into Spain and Africa under the command of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus. Eventually the Carthaginians recalled Hannibal to defend his homeland where the Romans under Scipio Africanus finally defeated him at the Battle of Zama, ending the Second Punic War. This time Rome wasn’t taking any chances that Carthaginian power might revive as a threat. Carthage had to surrender its possessions in Spain to Rome and pay a huge indemnity. The Carthaginian army was disbanded and Carthage was forbidden to raise another army or to declare war without the permission of the Roman Senate, which had no intention of ever granting such permission.

Here Cato the Elder enters the picture. Cato was born in the year 234 BC in an old, rural plebeian family. He fought in the Second Punic War with some distinction and then entered politics. Cato was a “new man”, that is, he did not have any ancestors who held high office in the Republic. Since the Romans preferred political dynasties, he would normally be expected to rise very high in Roman politics.  Such was Cato’s ability and reputation for virtue, however, that the Roman electorate was willing to overlook such a handicap. Cato was appointed quaestor in 204 and helped to supply the army that was sent to Africa. He was elected aedile in 199, praetor in 198 and Consul in 195. The following year he was sent to Spain to subdue the natives who had rebelled against Roman rule. He put down the revolt swiftly and ruthlessly and brutally and won a triumph in Rome for his successes. He also led military campaigns in Greece against the Seleucid Empire. His last public office was that of Censor in 184 but he continued to play a leading role in the Roman Senate for the rest of his life.

Cato the Elder

Cato the Elder

Cato the Elder was much admired by the Romans, both of his time and afterwards for his virtues.  He was conservative and upheld the Roman traditional way of life and he detested the Greek culture that the Roman elite had begun to adopt. He was frugal, stern, disciplined, honest, and brave. Cato seemed to embody all the virtues the Romans admired. He does not seem to be all that attractive a figure in modern terms. He was stern to the point of cruelty to his family and slaves. He was a miser who worked his slaves almost to death and then sold them so that he could avoid the expense of caring for slaves too old to work. He was self righteous, very conscious of his own virtues, and I imagine, very conscious of others failings. He was kind of a jerk.

In 157 BC, Cato was part of a delegation sent from the Senate to Carthage. He was alarmed to see that despite every Roman effort, Carthage was again prospering. Upon returning to Rome, He began to urge the destruction of Carthage. At the end of every single speech he made in the Senate, he would add, “ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” or, “Furthermore, it is my opinion that Carthage must be destroyed”. This is usually shortened to Carthago delenda est.

In 151, Carthage finally paid off the indemnity and the Carthaginians considered themselves free of any further obligations to Rome. When Numidia, a neighboring kingdom and an ally of Rome invaded, the Carthaginians fought back. Cato and Rome was not pleased. The Carthaginians tried to negotiate peace with Rome and Numidia but the Romans were looking for any excuse to start another war. When the Romans demanded that the Carthaginians abandon their city and move inland, they refused and in 149 BC, Rome declared war on Carthage.

This was not Rome’s finest hour. Carthage was defenseless and was no longer any threat to Rome. Nevertheless, the Romans acted as bullies provoking a fight against a weak adversary. The Third Punic War lasted from 149 to 146 and was essentially a siege of Carthage. The Carthaginians knew they had no hope to survive and fought a ferociously as those who have nothing to lose. In the end, the Romans captured and destroyed Carthage, killing or enslaving the entire population. Cato was not around to see his wish granted. He had died in 149.

Hannibal had his revenge, eventually. Carthage was at too good a location to remain uninhabited forever and Carthage was rebuilt as a Roman colony about a century later by none other than Julius Caesar. No doubt Cato was rolling over in his grave. Carthage survived as the leading Roman city in North Africa until it was captured by the Vandals, a germanic tribe that had made its way all the way across France and Spain, into Africa, in AD 430. In 455, the Vandal king Genseric invaded Italy and sacked Rome. One can imagine the ghost of Hannibal smiling with satisfaction as soldiers from Carthage finally sacked his hated enemy, Rome.

In 534 Carthage was taken back by the Romans under the the command of Belisarius, as part of the Emperor Justinian’s attempt to recapture the western half of the Empire. In 698, the Islamic armies captured and destroyed Carthage. This time Carthage was not rebuilt and the nearby town of Tunis took its place as the leading city of North Africa. Carthage still survives as a suburb of Tunis and is a major tourist attraction in Tunisia. Finally in 1985, the mayors of the cities of Rome and Carthage signed a treaty formally ending the Third Punic War and establishing a pact of friendship. There is no word on how Hannibal or Cato the Elder felt about that.

Ruins of Carthage

Ruins of Carthage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rand Paul and Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform

July 27, 2014

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has introduced a bill to reform federal civil forfeiture laws. As Radley Balko writes in the Washington Post:

This is a pretty big deal, especially if Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) can round up enough co-sponsors to build some momentum.

Sen. Rand Paul yesterday introduced S. 2644, the FAIR (Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration) Act, which would protect the rights of citizens and restore the Fifth Amendment’s role in seizing property without due process of law. Under current law, law enforcement agencies may take property suspected of involvement in crime without ever charging, let alone convicting, the property owner. In addition, state agencies routinely use federal asset forfeiture laws; ignoring state regulations to confiscate and receive financial proceeds from forfeited property.

The FAIR Act would change federal law and protect the rights of property owners by requiring that the government prove its case with clear and convincing evidence before forfeiting seized property.

The bill would also require states “to abide by state law when forfeiting seized property.” This is important. Currently, a number of state legislatures across the country have passed reform bills to rein in forfeiture abuses. The problem is that the federal government has a program known as “adoption” or “equitable sharing.” Under the program, a local police agency need only call up the Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or similar federal agency. That agency then “federalizes” the investigation, making it subject to federal law. The federal agency then initiates forfeiture proceedings under the laxer federal guidelines for forfeiture. The feds take a cut and then return the rest — as much as 80 percent — back to the local agency. This trick thwarts the intent of state legislature that have attempted to make civil forfeiture more fair when it comes to burden of proof, protections for innocent property owners and eliminating the perverse incentive of allowing forfeiture proceeds to go to the same police agency that made the seizure.

Which brings us to a final important provision in the bill: It would “would remove the profit incentive for forfeiture by redirecting forfeitures assets from the Attorney General’s Asset Forfeiture Fund to the Treasury’s General Fund.”

I am glad someone is doing something about this. Civil asset forfeiture abuse is becoming a growing problem all over the country. I am sure there are still too many people who are unaware that the police; state, local, or even federal agents, can simply declare that your house or car was bought with drug money or used in a crime and simply take it. Because this is a civil action and not a criminal proceeding, they do not have to prove you guilty of any crime. They don’t even have to charge you with a crime. It is up to you to prove that the property seized  was not used in any crime.

This problem has been dealt with by state governments, with varying degrees of effectiveness. The Institute for Justice has published a report on civil forfeiture laws, grading the states from A to D. Indiana is one of the better states getting a B+ for its forfeiture laws but a C on evasion with a combined grade of C+

Indiana has some of the better civil forfeiture laws in the country, at least with regard to the profit incentive.  Unfortunately, to forfeit your property, the government only needs to show that it was more likely than not that your property was related to a crime and thus is forfeitable—the legal standard of preponderance of the evidence, lower than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard required for a criminal conviction.  But law enforcement in Indiana does not receive any of the funds gained through civil forfeiture, which keeps the focus of law enforcement on preventing crime rather than raising funds.  After deducting law enforcement costs for the prosecution of civil forfeitures, all forfeiture revenue is sent either to the general fund of the state or the state’s education fund.  Indiana does participate in equitable sharing with the federal government, averaging more than $2.6 million per year in the 2000s.

Imagine what conditions are like for a state for an D grade. West Virginia is at the bottom of the list with a forfeiture law grade of D- and an evasion grade of D for a combined D- grade.

West Virginia has poor civil forfeiture laws.  The government must demonstrate that property is related to a crime and subject to forfeiture by a mere preponderance of the evidence, a standard much easier for law enforcement than proving criminal guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  And the burden is on owners for innocent owner claims, making owners effectively guilty until proven innocent.

When money is seized and forfeited, all of the proceeds go to law enforcement:  10 percent goes to the prosecuting attorney, and 90 percent goes to a law enforcement investigation fund.  Although there is no requirement in West Virginia that law enforcement officials collect information on forfeiture, a January 2009 article in the Register Herald offered some insight into the way police in Beckley, W.V., used forfeiture proceeds.  In 2008, the article reported, police brought in $65,000 and six vehicles through forfeiture.  Forfeiture revenue provided some of the funding to buy a $10,000 K-9 police dog for the department.[1]

No fewer than 29 states get a grade of D. Eighteen get a C grade, two a B, and only Maine gets an A. The problem, as the article states, is that no matter how good any state’s protections against civil forfeiture might be, as soon as the federal government gets involved, the laxer federal standards are applied. According to the Institute for Justice’s scale, the federal government gets a D-.

As the numbers below indicate, the federal government has a very aggressive civil forfeiture program.  Federal law enforcement forfeits a substantial amount of property for its own use while also teaming up with local and state governments to prosecute forfeiture actions, whereby all of the agencies share in the bounty at the end of the day.

Outrage over abuse of civil forfeiture laws led to the passage of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA) in 2000.  Under these changes, the government now must show by a preponderance of the evidence why the property should be forfeited.  The Act also created an innocent owner defense that lets individuals keep their property if they can show either that they did not know that it was being used illegally or that they took reasonable steps to stop it.

But while CAFRA heightened some procedural protections, it failed to address the largest problem in the federal civil forfeiture system:  the strong pecuniary interest that federal law enforcement agencies have in the outcome of the forfeiture proceeding.  For the past 25 years, federal agencies have been able to keep all of the property that they seize and forfeit.  And that has led to explosive growth in the amount of forfeiture activity at the federal level.

 

This policy began as part of the War on Drugs. The idea was that if law enforcement couldn’t find enough evidence to convict drug dealers or members of crime organizations, they could at least be deprived of the assets they needed to continue operations. This was obviously an enormous success judging from the lack of drugs in this country. In fact, since all too often, money gained from the sales of confiscated property goes directly into funding for law enforcement, there is a strong incentive for corruption and abuse. It is also a lot easier and safer to target small time criminals or the innocent for asset forfeiture than to pursue drug cartels or the mafia.

I wish Rand Paul success with this legislation. It is something badly needed.

Black and White

July 24, 2014

There are some conflicts in which neither side is clearly in the right or wrong, in which there is not really a black or white but shades of gray. World War I might serve as an example. Despite propaganda by both the Allies and the Central Powers, neither side could be unambiguously seen as in the right or wrong and neither side was clearly the aggressor. World War II was quite different. The Germans and the Japanese had both begun wars of aggression against neighboring countries without legitimate cause. The Axis powers were ruled by abominable governments that committed atrocities against the people they conquered. The presence of the Soviet Union on the side of the allies might have complicated matters since the Communists were every bit as evil as the Nazis and had, in fact, been aggressors earlier in that war, before Hitler double-crossed them. All the same, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and the efforts of the Russian people helped to end at least one great evil.

There are many who would like to believe that the current fighting in the Gaza Strip is one of the conflicts with no clear good or bad sides. If they cannot get away with blaming the whole affair on Israel and the Jews this time, they can at least adopt a position of moral equivalency. Both sides have committed wrongs. There is no black or white here. Such is the attitude of an article in the Christian Science Monitor I have just read.

There are two broad narratives about the current conflict between Hamasand Israel.

The first, presented by Israel and its allies, is that rocket-fire from the Gaza Strip by Hamas and other militants is an intolerable threat to the country, and that Israel is simply responding in self-defense. The second, presented by Hamas and its allies, is that the economic blockade of Gaza, the arrest of hundreds of Hamas members over the past month, and the heavy ordnance that has pounded the tiny enclave is intolerable, and they’re responding in self-defense.

Both sides are right. And both sides are wrong. They are right in that they are pursuing their interests with the tools that they’ve decided are best suited to the purpose – rockets and bombs. And that both sides would like the attacks from the other side to stop.

The article goes on at some length on the history of the conflict between Israel and Hamas and actually does do a good job of presenting the points of view of both sides fairly. The writer is wrong, all the same. There are  clear right and wrong sides in this conflict. Israel is in the right and Hamas is in the wrong.

I need not go into the entire history of how Israel’s neighbors have tried again and again to destroy the Jewish state or how Israel has been under siege since the day it was founded, nor do I need to to state how the Jews have taken a depopulated wasteland and turned it into a flourishing modern state while the Palestinians remain mired in poverty because their leaders care only for war against Israel. The simple fact of the matter is that if Hamas and the Fatah faction that controls the West Bank were to disarm and ask for peace, Israel would leave them alone. If they would grant that Israel has a right to exist and end their campaign to destroy Israel, Israel would make peace. On the other hand, if the Israelis were to disarm and ask only to live in peace, Israel would be quickly destroyed. One side wants peace. The other side wants genocide. There is no moral equivalence here and only the morally corrupt would suppose that there is.


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