Archive for the ‘Heroism’ Category

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.

Hobby Lobby Hullabaloo

July 6, 2014

 

The Democrats are milking the recent Supreme Court decision on Hobby Lobby for all it’s worth. Here is another e-mail from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Friend — The Supreme Court just RIPPED away women’s rights:

Five conservative men on our Supreme Court ruled that women must get their bosses’ permission to access birth control.

It is truly an outrage! Women should make their own health care decisions — NOT THEIR BOSSES!

If you support women’s access to health care, ADD YOUR NAME and denounce this disgusting Supreme Court decision.

Your Action History
Supporter Record: VN96C28FDA1
Last Petition Signed: October 24, 2013
Hobby Lobby Decision:Signature Pending >>

This is outrageous: Republicans are GLOATING in the wake of this revolting Supreme Court decision.

Their Tea Party candidates are fighting for EVEN MORE radical policies — a COMPLETE ban on some forms of birth control and EXTREME abortion restrictions.

We can’t stand by as the Republicans rip apart women’s rights. Let’s get 100,000 Democrats on board to oppose them!

Thanks for your support,
DSCC Action Alert

And Organizing for Action.

Friend –

When the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling came down on Monday, I was speechless.

All I could think about was what this ruling means for American families across the country whose employers now have a say in whether their birth control is covered by their insurance.

We’ve heard from countless OFA supporters who are fired up about it — if you’re angry, that’s because you should be. No one’s boss should be able to dictate their health care.

Right now, folks at the White House are working with champions in Congress to look for a solution to fix what this ruling broke. (There’s more to come on that soon.) The most important thing we can do right now is to keep making our voices heard — on social media, with friends at cookouts this weekend, everywhere.

What became crystal clear this week is exactly who’s willing to stand up for a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions — like Senate Majority Leader Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — who came forward to say they’re going to work to find a solution for the women affected.

It also painted a clear picture of who really couldn’t care less.

Contraception isn’t just a women’s issue — it’s part of millions of American families’ lives.

The court effectively said that some companies can choose which forms of birth control it wants to cover based on no other criteria than what the company’s owners personally feel is acceptable.

If you’re like me, this is pretty straightforward: No one should have their boss deciding which prescriptions are right for them.

Right now, it’s up to the people who are outraged to say so, and keep on doing it.

Thanks,

Kelly

Kelly Byrne
National Issue Campaigns Manager
Organizing for Action

I don’t know which is the more depressing possibility, that these people really believe this nonsense or that they are dishonest and cynical enough to take advantage of people’s ignorance to lie to them in order to raise funds and distract their base supporters from the disasters their policies have caused.

No, the Supreme Court decision does not rip away women’s rights. No, it does not limit access to contraception in any way. Neither Hobby Lobby nor any other employer is preparing to monitor their employees’ personal lives or prevent them from buying any form of contraceptive they wish to purchase with their own money. What the Supreme Court did say was that the owners of Hobby Lobby could not be forced to pay for a product or service that they have religious objections to. Hobby Lobby is not denying their employees all forms of contraceptives, just four out of twenty that could be considered abortifacients. If you do not believe your boss should decide on your health care decisions, then you should not ask him to pay for them. If it is his money, than he certainly ought to have some say on how it is spent.

Why is any of this even controversial? Well, it would hardly be controversial at all if the matter were stated honestly. Should a private company be required to purchase products or services they have a religious objection to, or should the government be permitted to override the religious scruples of private individuals and companies? The obvious answer is no. Few people would be willing to argue that government dictates should override religious beliefs. This is why the progressives are not putting the matter in that way. Instead, they are going into hysterics about employers preventing their employees from getting contraceptives and forcing their religion on their employees. One way to win an argument is to frame the issue in a way that favors your side, even if  this means emphasizing irrelevant side issues or outright lying about the true nature of the argument. Name calling and questioning your opponent’s motives is also useful. Thus abortion becomes women’s health and only sexist bigots would want to restrict it. Changing the fundamental nature of one of the most important institutions of human society by allowing members of the same sex to marry becomes marriage equality and only a homophobe would oppose it. Confiscating firearms is a sensible measure to reduce gun violence which only a right wing gun nut and the NRA would possibly be against. Placing crippling burdens on our economy by regulating carbon dioxide becomes reducing carbon pollution in order to prevent climate change, which only a science denier would oppose, and so on and on.

This is something the left has gotten to be very good at, and unfortunately, it is something the right isn’t very good with at all. I am not advising arguing dishonestly, but it would be better if conservatives knew better what was going on and not take for granted the left’s framing of the issues. As it is, too many times conservatives lose the argument before it starts by fighting on the opposition’s ground and defending themselves against the opposition’s attacks rather than going on the offensive. Let’s stop letting them change the subject. If they want to oppose freedom, hold them to it and don’t let them get away with adjusting the facts with clever wording.

 

That Hideous Strength

June 23, 2014

That Hideous Strength, the third book in C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy is not much like the previous two books, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. It is about twice as long, the story is set entirely on Earth, though the angelic Oyarses, the rulers of the planets, make an appearance at the climax. Elwin Ransom is not the protagonist of That Hideous Strength but he appears midway in the story and plays an important role in it. The supernatural plays a far greater role in That Hideous Strength than in the previous two books and it might be classified as more in the realm of fantasy than properly science fiction.

First edition cover

First edition cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story of That Hideous Strength centers on Mark and Jane Studdock, a recently, though somewhat unhappily married couple. Mark Studdock is a professor of Sociology at Bracton College, part of the University of Edgestow. He is ambitious, desiring most of all to be in the inner circle. He is delighted to be part of the “Progressive Element” at Bracton and supports their intrigues to sell some of the college’s land to the National Instituted for Co-ordinated Experiments. Mark is excited to meet Lord Feverstone, aka Dick Devine one of the antagonists from Out of the Silent Planet. Feverstone is both a senior fellow of Bracton and a leading figure at the NICE and when he offers to take Mark to the institute at Belbury for a possible job, Mark eagerly agrees to go.

At the NICE, Mark meets a variety of strange characters including John Wither, the Deputy Director who seems only vaguely aware of his surroundings, Dr. Filostrato, a physiologist who has managed to keep the severed head of an executed murderer alive, and Major “Fairy” Hardcastle, the sadistic, lesbian head of security. At first, Mark is not sure what his new job is supposed to be, or even if he actually has a new job. He falls in and out of favor with the authorities at The NICE seemingly at random and is never sure where he stands. This is gradually revealed as a method to bring him further into the mysteries surrounding NICE. It turns out that the leaders of the NICE have been in contact with demons or fallen eldilla, though they are not aware of their true nature, believing them to be superior beings called “macrobes”.

Meanwhile, Jane Studdock while supposedly working on her dissertation on John Donne is dismayed to find that she has become merely a housewife. She has begun to have clairvoyant dreams. When she confides in the wife of her tutor, Mrs. Dimble, she is taken to a manor at St Anne’s where she meets Mr. Fisher-King, Elwin Ransom. Ransom has been much changed by his travels to Malacandra and Perelandra and is no longer the simple philologist he was at the beginning of the Space Trilogy. Because he has lived in Paradise on Venus, Ransom appears younger and no longer ages, though still bears a wound on his heel inflicted by Weston during their fight. Ransom has become the Pendragon, the heir of King Arthur and has gathered around him a small group of people dedicated to fighting the evil represented at the NICE.

Jane’s clairvoyant dreams indicated that the NICE is attempting to disinter the body of Merlin from his resting place in the land they purchased from Bracton College. Merlin is not dead but in a suspended state and the leaders of the NICE hope to make use of his knowledge of the ancient lore of Numinor to effect a union between modern science and ancient magic. Merlin, however has his own ideas.

In his review of That Hideous Strength, George Orwell said that the introduction of the supernatural weakened the story and that one always knew who would win in any fight between God and the Devil. I don’t agree. Leaving aside the fact that Lewis would not have written any fiction that was not infused with his worldview that contains the possibility of miracles, I did not find that the supernatural elements of the story in any way lessened the suspense. In fact, I can honestly say that That Hideous Strength was one of the few books that I couldn’t bear to put down, since I was desperate to know just what the villains at the NICE were up to. There is something of a deus ex machina effect at the climax in which the ruling oyarses of the various planets, identified with the Roman gods the planets are named after, descend to Earth to upset the plans of the NICE, but Lewis skillfully builds up to the climax. The repentance of Mark Studdock is also well handled as he realizes that everything he had been working toward isn’t really what he thought he wanted. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I think it is the best of C. S. Lewis’s fiction I have yet read.

 

 

If D-Day Had Failed

June 9, 2014

I meant to write this on D-Day but with work and my own laziness, I procrastinated. Still, better late than never. There was an article which I read courtesy of Real Clear Politics, titled 5 Ways D-Day Could Have Been a Disaster written by Michael Peck  and published on D-Day in The National Interest. This article listed five ways in which things could have gone very wrong on that fateful June 6, 1944. Because the Allies did win World War 2, we are used to thinking that it was inevitable that they would win, but that is by no means certain. Launching an amphibious assault on the shores of Normandy was a terribly risky thing to do. Even under the best conditions sea-borne invasions are difficult and dangerous. The odds were against success No one knew that better than General Eisenhower. Before the battle he had written a brief statement to be released to the press in the event of failure. Eisenhower and his staff took extraordinary measures to keep the location of the invasion secret, even preparing a phantom army commanded by General Patton that seemed to be poised to land at Calais. If the Germans had discovered the location of the actual invasion and had troops ready to defend the beaches, the Normandy invasion would have been over almost before it began.

Reflection on D-Day

Reflection on D-Day (Photo credit: DVIDSHUB)

What would have happened if the Allied troops landing at Normandy had been defeated? The overall course of the war might not have changed all that much. Germany still would have lost. The destruction of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad the previous year ended any realistic hope of a German victory. The Soviet army would have continued to fight its way east. The British and Americans would have continued to fight in Italy. The invasion of southern France that took place in August might have gone ahead. Then again that invasion was successful because there had been a breakout from Normandy. Perhaps in the wake of a defeat it would have been deemed too risky.

There probably would have been another attempt to liberate France. The buildup for a second invasion would have taken time. It may be that the second attempt would not have been made until the following summer. World War 2 might have lasted for another year. If so the Soviets might have been able to move further west than they actually did. Maybe the meeting of the Allies would have taken place on the Rhine instead of the Elbe. Instead of a divided Germany, there would have been a united Communist Germany. That would have changed the balance of power in Europe in Russia’s favor. Maybe, with Soviet troops on their borders, the French and Italian Communists would have been more emboldened to seize power after the war. There is no way to know.

There are a couple of wild cards. Joseph Stalin was not a trusting man and he always suspected that the Allies were planning to fight Hitler to the last Russian.  This was why he agreed to the Ribbontrop-Molotov pact. He continually demanded that Roosevelt and Churchill open up a second front to relieve the Soviet Union. After a failure at Normandy, Stalin might have concluded that either the invasion was not really meant to succeed or that an invasion couldn’t succeed. Stalin might then have considered trying to negotiate an armistice with Hitler. Stalin wouldn’t have trusted Hitler, after Hitler had double crossed him by invading the Soviet Union and he certainly wouldn’t have forgiven him. Stalin, however, was patient and had often made strategic retreats in his rise to power in order to lull his enemies into complacency. Stalin might have decided to try for a separate peace until Hitler was engaged with the British and the Americans and then launched an attack.

I think this outcome unlikely, though. In 1944 the Red Army had the initiative and was steadily driving the Germans back. Stalin probably wouldn’t have wanted to slow or stop their momentum. Even if he had sued for an armistice, it is unlikely Hitler would have agreed. A Hitler who allowed the disaster at Stalingrad to take place and who ordered his army not to retreat one inch was not thinking very rationally.

Another wild card was the atomic bomb. The first atomic bomb was detonated at Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945. By this time Germany had already surrendered. There was thus no question of using the bomb on the Germans. If the fighting was still going on, things would have been different. Since Truman authorized the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as much to deter the Soviets from post war aggression as to defeat Japan, the atomic bomb would have been used on Germany. Perhaps the first atomic bombs would have been dropped on Munich and Hamburg. I don’t think that Hitler would have surrendered, even then. By the end of the war, he had become nihilistic enough to prefer Germany destroyed rather than occupied. An atomic bombing of Germany might have sparked a coup among his top officials and generals.

If the first two atomic bombs had been dropped on Germany in August, 1945, what of Japan? We only had the three atomic bombs, so none would have been available to use on Japan. The Japanese were clearly defeated by then, but they had some hope that as long as an invasion of Japan itself was prevented there could be some sort of negotiated peace. Since the die-hard militarists did not surrender even when the first atomic bomb was used at Hiroshima in Japan, the use of the atomic bombs on Germany probably would not have convinced them. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan on August 8, just as the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and the war ended, so the Soviet Union did not have much influence on post war Japan. If the war had lasted longer, perhaps Russia and America would have invaded Japan  and the country would have been divided as Germany was. I don’t think the US would have attempted a landing on Japan after we realized that the atomic bomb was workable. I think that more bombs would have been rushed into production and the US would have intensified conventional bombing. I do not think that the Soviets had the capability to launch an amphibious assault on Japan.

Of course, there is no way to know what would have happened if D-Day had failed and maybe my speculations are not very realistic. I think it is obvious, however, that things could have gone very badly. World War 2 could have lasted longer and more men might have died. We all owe the brave men who fought at Normandy a debt of gratitude that we will never be able to repay.

D-Day 65th Anniversary

D-Day 65th Anniversary (Photo credit: The U.S. Army)

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Black Confederate Soldiers

June 2, 2014

Yes, they did really exist, even though dailykos states that they were a myth concocted by right wing “wingnuts”. There were never very many Black Confederate soldiers and I very much doubt any of them ever saw combat, but they did exist. Actually the story of the Confederate Blacks is an interesting one about men willing to fight for their country, and not being allowed to until it was too late.

The problem that the Confederate States of America had throughout the Civil War was that almost in everything needed to conduct a war, the North had more than the South. The Union had the greater population with 20 million against the Rebel’s 9 million. In fact the ratio of men of military age was much worse for the South, 4,070,000 to 1,140,000, because around 3,500,000 of the South’s population were Black slaves who weren’t expected to fight.  In fact, slavery may have been the South’s greatest disadvantage. Slaves have to be watched or they may try to escape or slack off on their work. The Confederacy did have some advantage with geography and they didn’t have to invade and conquer the North to win. They could fight a defensive war. Conquering and occupying a country is harder and more expensive than defending against an invader. Unfortunately for the South, the North had a great enough advantage to make it possible, albeit with much bloodshed.

One logical way to offset at least some of the Confederate disadvantage in population would have been to enlist at least some of the  Black men to fight, in segregated units with White officers, of course. You might wonder why any slave would want to fight for his masters and whether they could be trusted. Well, not all the Black population in the South were slaves. According to the 1860 census, there were 3,653,870 Blacks in the states that seceded from the Union the following year, 3,521,110 were slaves but 132,760, or around 4% were free Blacks. Many Blacks who were emancipated moved North but many stayed in the South, because it was their home or they had relatives still in bondage. Although there was a lot of discrimination against them, some of these free Blacks managed to prosper and there was even a handful of Black slave owners. Some of these free Blacks were willing to fight, either out of patriotism or the hope of some improvement in their circumstances. Even slaves might be induced to fight with the promise of emancipation.

Needless to say, Southern Whites were not enthusiastic about the idea of Blacks, free or slave fighting for the Confederacy. The slave-owning planter class was especially against the idea. Part of this was simple racism. No one believed that Africans had the necessary skills or qualities needed to make good soldiers. Also, it didn’t seem to be prudent to arm slaves, or former slaves and teach them to fight. Aside from the possibility of a slave insurrection, the sight of Black soldiers marching off to war might encourage insolence among the slaves, making it harder to maintain control. Actually, quite a few slave owners thought that the mere existence of free Blacks set a bad example. Over time, the southern states made it more difficult for a slave owner to emancipate his slaves.

At the beginning of the Civil War, some of the free Blacks of New Orleans formed the 1st Louisiana Native Guard. This militia unit of 1135 men was organised on May 2, 1861. The 1st Louisiana Native Guard was actually the first unit in America to have Black officers, although Louisiana governor Thomas Overton Moore appointed White officers to command the unit. The Confederate government did not have any use for the 1st Louisiana Native Guard. It did not provide the men with uniforms or weapons.

1st Louisiana Native Guard

1st Louisiana Native Guard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The men were able to obtain their own weapons and uniforms at their own expense and marched in a parade in New Orleans on January 8, 1861. They were not given any duties, even as non-combatants and were disbanded by the Louisiana state legislature on February 15, 1862.

Although there are unconfirmed reports of Blacks fighting for the South, there were no Black units officially organized, nor was the idea of enlisting Blacks given any consideration. Slave labor was used in various support roles, as teamsters, hospital attendants, and slaves were increasingly used to replace to labor of the White men who were absent to fight in the war. It seems most likely that any Blacks who were seen fighting were servants obliged to pick up a rifle to protect themselves and their masters. As the war went on and the South began to lose, a few people began to consider the unthinkable. In 1864, Major-General Pat Cleburne of the Army of Tennessee called a meeting of the leading officers to propose freeing the slaves and enlisting them to fight. In this way, he argued, the South’s disadvantage of slavery could be turned into its advantage. This proposal was not well received by his fellow officers and his commander, Joseph E. Johnston, advised him not to press the matter any further. Word of Cleburne’s radical proposal leaked out, however, and although he was one of the South’s better generals, he was not considered for promotion again before he died later that year.

President Jefferson Davis also began to realize that it might be necessary to enlist Blacks. He realized that any mention of such a proposal would be extremely controversial, so he put off suggesting such a course of action until there was no alternative. By the start of 1865, it seemed that that time had come. On January 11, 1865, General Robert E. Lee wrote to the Confederate Congress urging them to enlist Black slaves to fight in exchange for freedom. The Confederate Congress debated the legislation for two months, finally passing a bill on March 13, by a very slim margin. President Davis signed the bill the next day and made it military policy to allow slaves to fight, with the permission of their masters, in exchange for manumission. Even then, most southern Whites resented the idea of allowing Blacks to fight. When the first Black recruits marched through Richmond in their new, gray uniforms, Whites threw mud at them. It was too late, in any case. On April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered to  General Grant at Appomattox Court House. By the end of May the war was over.

Would it have made a difference if the Blacks in the South had been allowed to fight? Probably not. Even with the  additional manpower, the North still had a considerable advantage in numbers over the South, not to mention its other advantages. Then again, I think the greatest advantage the Union had over the Confederacy was in the quality of the leadership of the two sides. Jefferson Davis was capable enough, but he didn’t have Lincoln’s skill at placating critics or getting rivals to work together. Confederate diplomacy was amateurish. The governors of some of the southern states worked against the policies of the central government.  General Lee didn’t really understand the war on the continental scale to the extent that Grant and Sherman did. A Confederate government that was flexible and open minded enough to be willing to consider having the Blacks fight before the last month of the war might have been able to use the resources of the South to win. Of course, a Southern leadership that was open minded and flexible might have realized that slavery was an institution that was quickly becoming  discredited in the modern world and have adopted some plan of emancipation, thus avoiding the need for the war.

 

 

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