Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Thanksgiving

November 24, 2016

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 Election of 1856

November 20, 2016

The election of 1856,may have been one of the most important elections in American history. The country was beginning to tear itself apart over slavery and wise, tactful leadership was needed to avert a civil war. Unfortunately the political generation that had produced such legislative giants as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster had passed away the candidates of both major parties, the Democrats and the newly formed Republicans in their first presidential contest, were mediocrities.

The Compromise of 1850 had only delayed the inevitable clash between North and South over slavery. Although the immediate issue of whether the territories won from Mexico would be slave or free territories, the provision that the territories themselves would make the choice to permit slavery through popular sovereignty effectively repealed the Missouri compromise and made future conflicts over the expansion of slavery more likely.

The Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850

When the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and permitted popular sovereignty on the slavery question, pro and anti slavery settlers poured into Kansas and began fighting a miniature civil war, foreshadowing the greater war to come.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Democratic National Convention was held in Cincinnati on June 2. The delegates declined to nominate President Franklin Pierce for a second term. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act seemed to be a strong contender for the nomination, but he was passed over for James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. Buchanan was very well qualified to part the job of chief executive, at least in theory. He had been serving as American ambassador to Great Britain at the time he was nominated and had previously held the posts of Secretary of State under President Polk, U S Senator from Pennsylvania from 1834 to 1845; where he served as Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, Ambassador to Russia under President Andrew Jackson from 1832-1833, and Congressman from Pennsylvania from 1821-1831. Buchanan had also served as a private in the Pennsylvania militia during the War of 1812. Despite his long career of service to his country, Buchanan was not particularly distinguished as a leader and the most likely reason he was nominated was because he had been out of the country during the controversies surrounding the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Bleeding Kansas. Buchanan was not known to have said anything about the issue of slavery that would upset the South and although he was a Northerner, he seemed sympathetic to the South and its peculiar institution.

For Buchanan’s running mate, the delegates selected John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, who had been a Congressman from 1851-1855. Breckinridge would have preferred not to be nominated as Buchanan’s running mate, as he had supported Pierce and the two men did not get along, but he acquiesced. The Democrats went on to adopt a platform of popular sovereignty on the slavery question and support for the Ostend Manifesto which called for the acquisition of Cuba from Spain.

The Republicans met for their first national convention in Philadelphia of June 17. The Republican party  was formed from a coalition of former Whigs, Free-Soilers, and anti-slavery democrats to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act and was formally launched at a mass meeting at Jackson, Michigan back on July 6, 1854 and quickly began to win elections throughout the North that fall. The Republican Party was an explicitly anti-slavery party, but they didn’t call for the abolition of slavery where it existed, only for slavery not to expand into the western territories.

The Republicans chose the famous explorer and military hero John C. Fremont to be their presidential candidate. Fremont was known as “The Pathfinder” for his expeditions in the west and had captured California, during the Mexican War and had briefly served a contentious term as military governor there. After the was, Fremont had settled in California and served as one of the new state’s first Senators from 1850-1851. Fremont was not particularly well qualified to be president, but he did have a catchy slogan, “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Men, Fremont”. The Republicans went on to pick former New Jersey Senator William L. Dayton as his running mate.

 

There were other parties who ran candidates in this election, the most notable being the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic American Party. The American Party was as much a secret society as a political party and because its members answered. “I know nothing when asked about its activities, the movement became known as the Know-Nothings. The American Party had managed to win a few elections, chiefly in New England. At their convention in Philadelphia in February 1856, the Know-Nothings nominated former president

 Millard Fillmore as their candidate, even though he had not been a follower of their movement and was, in fact, out of the country. They selected Andrew Jackson Donelson as their Vice-Presidential candidate.There were also the remnants of the Whig Party which met in Baltimore in September, They also nominated Millard Fillmore.

Along with the debate over slavery, there was the usual nineteenth century campaign hoopla, with parades, mass meetings, speeches, and political clubs. The Republicans did not run in the southern states, which were expected to vote for Buchanan and the Democrats,  so most of the campaigning was in the North and West. The Republicans opposed the extension of slavery into new territories and appealed to western farmers who did not want to have to compete with slave labor and eastern businessmen who supported high tariffs to protect American industry and fund internal improvements. Mainly of these businessmen supported the Democrats, however, fearing possible economic disruption if the Republicans won. The Democrats appealed to racism, calling their opponents “Black Republicans” and warned that the South would secede in the event of a Republican victory. They also claimed that Fremont was secretly a Catholic. Oddly, this did not help him get the Catholic vote, since the Catholics somehow believed that he was connected to the Know-Nothings.

In the end, the people of the North decided that they feared disunion and civil war more than they disliked slavery. Buchanan got 1,836,072 popular votes (45.3%) and 174 electoral votes, sweeping the entire South, California, and Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey in the North. Fremont did not do too badly considering that this was the Republicans’ first national election. He won 1,342,345 popular votes (33.1%) and 114 electoral votes, winning the rest of the North. The American Party also did surprisingly well with 873,053 popular votes (21.5%) and they won the state of Maryland with its 8 electoral votes. The fact that the results were divided upon sectional lines was more than a little ominous, as were the Southern threats to secede if the election wouldn’t go their way.

The Election of 1856

The Election of 1856

 

At his inauguration, President James Buchanan spoke of the nation’s bright future of economic progress and territorial expansion. About the slavery issue, he only said that he supported popular sovereignty in the territories and hoped that the upcoming decision by the Supreme Court on Dred Scott v. Sanford would settle the matter once and for all. Just two days later, the Supreme Court rendered its decision declaring that Congress had no power to regulate slavery in the territories, and all hell broke loose.

President Trump

November 13, 2016

I really didn’t expect Donald Trump to win this election. Actually, when he first won the nomination, I thought Trump had a fair chance of winning, particularly since Hilary Clinton is such an unattractive candidate. But, as the campaign progressed and the polls and Nate Silver‘s FiveThirtyEight consistently showed Clinton in the lead and after all the embarrassing things that Donald Trump had said in the past came out, I started to believe that he didn’t have a chance. To be sure, there were the Wikileaks revelations, but I counted on the media not to report on anything likely to harm Hilary Clinton’s chance of winning. It didn’t seem as if the increasing evidence of her corruption and contempt for the voters would make much of a difference.

I am glad to say that I was wrong. I am not a supporter of Donald Trump. I would have preferred that just about any of the other Republican contenders had won the nomination. I voted for Trump mostly because I did not believe that a person who has apparently broken federal laws safeguarding our national security should be rewarded by being given the highest office in the country.

Why were the polls and the experts wrong? Not all of them were. Scott Adams was predicting a Trump victory even before he secured the nomination. I think that Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity were Trump supporters all along and there were signs of discontent with the nomination of Hilary Clinton in traditionally strong Democratic states like Michigan and Wisconsin which went to Trump. Still, almost all the polls consistently showed Clinton in the lead. I suppose media bias played a role. There are ways of slanting polls to get the results you want and I don’t think any candidate was been so generally despised by the mainstream media as much as Donald Trump. The media has alway been biased in favor of the Democratic candidate, but this year they seemed to lose even the pretense of objectivity. This is understandable, since if a candidate is a racist monster, the second coming of Adolf Hitler, than any means, including deception, are permitted to stop him. There may have been more than a few people in the media willing to deliberately slant the polls or lie about the outcome, for a good cause. I wonder, though, if the pollsters who depend on a reputation for accuracy would go along. Perhaps this was more a case of wishful thinking and unwillingness to go against conventional wisdom than deliberate deception on the part of the media.

The people who were dishonest may have been the people who were planning to vote for Trump. There was a stigma attached to openly supporting Trump in some places. Supporters of Trump risked ostracism, loss of opportunities, and even violence against their property and persons. There might have been millions of Trump voters who kept quiet, lied to pollsters, and then voted for Trump in the privacy of the voting booth.

I hope that the Republicans learn the right lessons from Trump’s victory. Probably the only thing about Trump that I have found attractive is his willingness to fight. Too many Republicans, particularly presidential candidates are not. They try to curry the favor of the media, even though it is implacably hostile to them. Trump treated the reporters with the contempt they deserve. When they are attacked as racist, sexist, homophobic bigots, most Republicans back down and apologize, even when they have said nothing that could be construed as bigoted except in the minds of their opponents. Trump did not back down and apologize. He kept on attacking. Previous candidates were either too nice to fight back. like Mitt Romney and the Bushes, or used to media adulation for betraying their fellow Republicans, only to be shell-shocked when exposed to the full force of media bias when they run against a Democrat, like McCain. Trump is not nice. To be sure, his tendency to attack got him into trouble when he took things personally, but there ought to be a happy medium between being too aggressive and not aggressive at all. I hope that a less flawed and more disciplined Republican candidate will be able to find that medium.

I don’t think there is much 0f a mystery why Trump won. There are a lot of Americans who feel that they have been left behind and forgotten, that the leadership of both parties have been ignoring their needs and concerns. There are millions of Americans in so-called flyover country who believe, with good reason, that they live in a country whose leaders have rigged the economy to benefit themselves at the expense of ordinary Americans. Even worse, it is becoming increasingly obvious that these elites view ordinary Americans in fly-over country with contempt. Their religion and moral are mocked in the entertainment media. Their concerns are derided as bigotry. They have begun to feel as if their country has been taken away from them. These Americans may not have liked everything Donald Trump had to say, but the fact that the elites that despise them also hated Trump must have seemed to be a good reason to support Trump. He has the right sort of enemies. The way in which the anti-Trump protesters have been acting seems to vindicate their support.

I don’t know what kind of president Trump is likely to be. I don’t think that he is going to be the unmitigated disaster some are predicting. I doubt he is going to end up in anyone’s list of top ten best presidents. He couldn’t be worse than Barack Obama has been, or Hilary Clinton would have been. We’ll have to wait and see.

 

Colin Kaepernick

October 3, 2016

Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback for the San Francisco 49’s, has been making some waves lately with his refusal to stand for the National Anthem in protest over the treatment of Blacks in America, or something. As is often the case, there is a good deal of nonsense being written about this matter which needs to be dispensed with.

First, contrary to what some on the left are saying to confuse the issue, no one is disputing that Mr. Kaepernick has a right to refuse to stand when the National Anthem is played. He can stand, sit down, or turn somersaults if he wants to. I hope we can be spared any lectures on the first amendment by progressive hypocrites whose first instinct is to censor any ideas they don’t like.

Now, the NFL and the 49ers, as private corporations, do have the right to sanction Mr. Kaepernick if they believe his actions bring discredit or loss of revenue to them. He is working for them and can be expected to abide by their guidelines. They will not sanction Kaepernick, however. Political correctness has taken over even the world of sports and no athlete will be sanctioned for expressing an opinion so long as the opinion expressed is properly politically correct orthodoxy. A devout Christian who refused to stand for the national anthem on the grounds that he cannot support a nation that continences abortion or gay marriage is not likely to be met with the same bemused tolerance.

This leads to the other piece of nonsense that ought to be dispensed with, that Colin Kaepernick is being in any way courageous or brave. He must know perfectly well that nothing bad is likely to happen to him as a result of his demonstration. It is not at all controversial to regurgitate left wing talking points. If he really wanted to be brave and controversial, he might make a public statement that the wounds afflicting the African-American community these days is either of their own making or inflicted by people wanting to “help” them. If anything, his actions help him by drawing attention to him. I, and many others who are not football fans, would have never heard of him if not for his actions. Also, he has made himself immune from being dismissed from the team if  he underperforms. He can simply proclaim that he is being punished for his courageous stand and there is no shortage of fools who would believe him.

The question is not whether Colin Kaepernick has a right to sit during the national anthem, he does, but whether he is right to do so. His stated reasons for sitting are:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,  “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Are blacks and people of color being oppressed and murdered in this country? Should he refuse to show pride in his country. It seems more than a little grotesque for a man who is being paid millions of dollars to complain about being oppressed. Granted, he is not saying that he is personally being oppressed but is unselfishly protesting the oppression of all the other people of color, but it is still odd that he has not considered that a country willing to pay him so much money for playing a game may not be the oppressive dystopia he seems to believe it is. There are, indeed, tragic occasions in which police officers make the wrong decision and shoot suspects, but does he really believe that there are any police officers who start their shifts intending to gun down innocent Blacks? Does it not occur to him that a police officer might be unpunished for shooting a person simply because the shooting happened to be justified, that the officer had good reason to fear for his life?

That is really the point. No one denies that Blacks and people of color were treated very badly in the past in this country. There is, no doubt, still some discrimination against people. What Colin Kaepernick and others do not seem to understand is that oppression, prejudice and discrimination are what’s normal throughout human history. What is not normal is for a privileged group to willingly give up its privileges and to attempt to redress past wrongs, yet that is what has been happening in the United States for the past half century. Mr. Kaepernick’s vision of country that oppresses people of color does not match the reality of a government that has made it a priority to end discrimination and a media that denounces racism and prejudice at every opportunity.

The truth is that neither Colin Kaepernick, or any other American in the twenty-first century can justly claim to be persecuted and oppressed, whatever their color, race or circumstances, not by the standards that have prevailed in most times and places. There has been a lot of talk, lately, about white privilege and the one percent. Perhaps it would be better to talk about American privilege. If you have the good fortune to be born in America, then you are one of the most privileged persons to have ever walked the Earth. You have freedoms and opportunities few have ever had. You don’t have to be afraid of going to jail for saying the wrong thing or practicing the wrong religion. Your career opportunities are not limited by by your social class or birth. You can rise to the top, however humble your origins, if you have enough talent, ambition and are willing to work hard. Naturally, not everyone has the same opportunities and some have advantages others do not. That is inevitable. We cannot make everyone begin on a precisely level playing field. Despite that, and despite the real history of racial discrimination in this country, the United States of America is probably the best place in the world to be Black, or White or Yellow, or whatever. America is a country worth being proud of, despite its faults.

It is too bad that ingrates like Colin Kaepernick cannot see past the faults and recognise what a great country they live in.

 

All About Mormons

September 13, 2016

The creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have a curious relationship towards religion. They are not religious and enjoy mocking religion in their show, yet they deny being atheists and have been just as quick to make fun of the pretensions of Atheism and the New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, and they have admitted to having  a certain curiosity and respect for religious belief. In fact, a closer look at the South Park episodes which ridicule religion shows that they are really opposed to hypocrisy or bad actions justified by religious belief.

Parker and Stone have a particular liking for Mormonism. Growing up in Colorado, right next to the Mormon promised land of Utah, they knew many Mormons and have expressed an appreciation for their politeness and niceness, even while regarding the story of Joseph Smith and Mormon beliefs as ridiculous. Their feelings about Mormonism and religion in general are expressed in the seventh season episode, “All About Mormons“.

In this episode, a Mormon family, the Harrisons, moves to South Park and one of the boys, named Gary, is in the same class as the series regulars.  The Harrisons are nice and polite and eager to befriend everyone in South Park, particularly the Marshes and while they do not want to force their religious beliefs on anyone, they are more than willing to tell their neighbors the history and beliefs of the Mormon religion and it’s prophet Joseph Smith.

The Harrisons

The Harrisons

This history is told through a series of musical flashbacks.

Stan is not impressed with their account of Joseph Smith and points out the inconsistencies and logical fallacies that suggest that Joseph Smith was simply making up his stories about the golden plates and the Angel Moroni.

"All you've got are a bunch of stories about some asswipe who read plates nobody ever saw out of a hat and then couldn't do it again when the translations were hidden!"

“All you’ve got are a bunch of stories about some asswipe who read plates nobody ever saw out of a hat and then couldn’t do it again when the translations were hidden!”

The next day Gary confronts Stan at the bus stop and explains why he is a Mormon even if the stories are a little silly.

Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life, and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.

The sentiment expressed by Gary, and presumably shared by Parker and Stone is one that I would hope if widely adopted, might promote greater tolerance and civility between persons of different faiths, and with those with no faith. Still, it doesn’t satisfy me because it ignores the question that is most important to me. It is good if the religion you follow makes you a better person, but the question I think more important is, is the religion true? Can the assertions and claims made by this particular religion be shown to be true or false?

I do not mean the metaphysical claims made by nearly all religions concerning deities or the afterlife or anything of that sort. These matters cannot be shown to be true or false this side of eternity and properly matters of faith Nor do I expect that every word of the Book of Mormon or spoken by Joseph Smith to be literally and completely true. That is a burden that even my own mainstream Christianity couldn’t bear. I do think it is fair to ask whether, in a broad sense, the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith are what they claim to be. Is the Book of Mormon really a historical record of Jewish refugees who settled in the New World? Is Joseph Smith really a prophet of the Lord who translated this account?

The answer to both questions would seem to be no. Studies of the DNA of the Native Americans show that their ancestry is almost entirely from Northern Asia or Siberia. There is no indication of any ancestors of Semitic or Middle Eastern origin. There is no archeological evidence that any of the events described in the Book of Mormon ever took place Not a single city or country named in the Book of Mormon has ever been positively located or identified, nor do any individuals named in the Book of Mormon appear in any historical record outside the Book of Mormon. In contrast, many places in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, can be located on a map and many people named in the Bible can be attested in other sources. It may well be that some of the accounts in the Bible are slanted, or even fictitious, but there is no question that there really were places like Israel, Judah, Jerusalem, or Babylon and that people like the kings and prophets of Israel, Jesus and his apostles really did exist.

As for Joseph Smith, he had something of a reputation as a con artist who practiced folk magic, specializing in money digging, or searching for lost treasure by occult means. It is possible that Smith reformed after the visions he claimed to have had, but Smith’s actions even after he founded the Mormon religion do not seem to be those of an honest man, still less a prophet.

Does it matter it there is any truth to the Book of Mormon or the story of Joseph Smith, so long as it improves people’s lives? Perhaps not, but it seems to me that a faith built on untruths is a faith built on sand rather than solid rock. I do not believe that such a faith can endure.

For my part, if it were shown that the claims of Christianity were false, I would be obliged to change religions. I could not take comfort in the idea that it does not matter whether the stories the gospels tell about Jesus are true so long as I follow the teachings in the gospels because Christianity is not based on the teachings of Jesus, or Paul, or anyone else. Buddhism could still exist even if it were shown that there was no such person as Gautama because his teachings about life and suffering stand on their own regardless whether he existed or not. The same could be true of Confucius or Socrates or many other sages. The teachings of Christ are not much different from the teachings of other sages and express the same truths common to the whole human race. The central message of Christianity is a historical one, that the man Jesus of Nazareth was God in human form who was crucified for our sins, who died and was resurrected, defeating sin and death. If Jesus were shown to have never existed or were shown to have been just an ordinary man, than I, and every other Christian, have been wasting our time. As Paul put it,

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1Cor 15:12-19)

Is this true of Mormonism? I don’t know. The family values taught by the contemporary Mormon faith certainly have little to do with the polygamous Joseph Smith. It may be that the faith is better than its founder. And yet, the family values that Mormonism teaches are, or used to be, the mainstream within the Judeo-Christian tradition. If one can have the family values without the silly stories about Joseph Smith, why bother with the silly stories? If the Mormon religion gives life meaning but is shown to be based on falsehoods, than then meaning one derives from the faith is also based upon falsehoods. I think I would rather have a faith based on truth.

Fifteen Years

September 11, 2016

It has been fifteen years since 9/11. We said that we would never forget, but I am afraid we are already forgetting. They are even starting to teach in colleges that it was our fault.  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. Too bad the lightworker is incapable of learning from history. Even now he has made a deal with Iran with virtually guarantees that they will be able to develop nuclear weapons without interference from us. It may well be that the next 9/11 attack will be nuclear one.

Well, I will never forget that dreadful day fifteen 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 three 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

 

Murder and Magic

September 1, 2016

Writing a detective story in a science fiction or fantasy setting can be a hazardous undertaking because of the temptation for the writer to cheat by having his hero pull out some gadget that will destroy the suspect’s alibi by showing everyplace he’s been for the last twenty-four hours or casting a magic spell that shows the blood on his hands, literal or not. In order for the mystery writer to play fair with the readers and write a whodunit worth reading, he has to set out the rules and limitations of the advanced technology or magic that his world uses to solve crimes. He need not make the rules explicit in the story, but they have to be there in the background, and they have to be reasonably consistent.

Randall Garrett did an excellent job of combining the mystery and fantasy genres in his Lord Darcy series of stories. Set in an alternate world in which Richard the Lion Hearted managed to survive the accidental crossbow shot that killed in real life.  Instead, the near death experience prompted King Richard to settle down from fighting and crusading and seriously try to govern the lands he ruled, resulting in an Angevin Empire that survives into the twentieth century. Richard also patronised scholars and scientists which led to the discovery of the laws of magic. By the time of Garrett’s stories, the Angevin Empire of England and France, along with the Americas and other colonies is the leading world power and magic is used in everyday applications, much as science and technology are used in ours. Magicians can cast spells to preserve food, secure homes, communicate over long distances, and help solve crimes.

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In this world, Lord Darcy is the Chief Forensic Investigator for the Duke of Normandy. In the course of his duties, Lord Darcy solves crimes and untangles international intrigues, assisted by the forensic sorcerer Sean O’ Lochlainn. Despite the fantasy setting, the cases Lord Darcy investigates are mostly the sort that can be found in any mystery story. Magic is not often used to commit the crimes and Sean O’Lochlainn’s techniques are rather like the more scientific procedures that might be familiar to a viewer of a show like CSI. Magic is a substitute for science in Lord Darcy’s world and a forensic sorcerer can no more solve a crime by magic in that world than a crime scene technician can “magically” solve a crime in our own.

Murder and Magic is Randall Garrett’s  first collection of  Lord Darcy stories. The collection includes four short stories with cases involving a supposed suicide, mistaken identities and blackmail, and a plot by the King of Poland, England-France’s chief international rival, to disrupt the Atlantic trade. I found each of the stories to be entertaining and finished the book wanting to read more. I think that anyone who enjoys reading either mysteries or fantasies will find the stories that combine the two genres to be worth reading.

Retired Emperor

August 22, 2016

Japanese Emperor Akihito may be thinking of abdicating his post because his age is making it difficult to fulfill his duties as emperor. The BBC has this story.

Japan’s Emperor Akihito has strongly indicated he wants to step down, saying he fears his age will make it difficult to fulfil his duties.

The revered 82-year-old emperor’s comments came in only his second-ever televised address to the public.

Emperor Akihito did not explicitly say he wanted to abdicate as he is barred from making political statements.

PM Shinzo Abe said the government would take the remarks “seriously” and discuss what could be done.

“Upon reflecting how he handles his official duty and so on, his age and the current situation of how he works, I do respect the heavy responsibility the emperor must be feeling and I believe we need to think hard about what we can do,” he said.

It is not as easy as that, though.

Why can’t the emperor abdicate? Abdication is not mentioned under Japan’s existing laws, so they would need to be changed for the emperor to be able to stand down. The changes would also have to be approved by parliament.

Emperor Akihito

Emperor Akihito

I am actually a little surprised that there is no provision for an Emperor abdicating under current Japanese law. There was a time, during the Heian period, in which the Emperor was not only permitted to abdicate, but was actually required to step down in favor of his successor.

The period of time from 794-1185, when the court at Heian ruled over Japan is known as the Heian period. This was a remarkable period of Japanese history, in which the Japanese fully absorbed the influences from China and made them part of a a uniquely Japanese culture. During the Heian period, Japanese arts, literature, and philosophy reached a peak seldom equalled in the centuries since. The influence of the Heian period on Japanese culture is something like that of ancient Greece and Rome in the West, the basis of everything that followed.

The earlier Heian period is also one of the few times in Japanese history in which the Emperor actually wielded political power, following the example of the all-powerful Chinese Emperors. Over time, however, the Imperial house began to decline in power and vigor, just as the various Chinese dynasties had. The powerful Fujiwara clan began to gain power at the expense of the Emperors. The Fujiwaras monopolized the top government posts and were the regents when an Emperor was a minor. They married their daughters to the Emperors so that a Fujiwara was always the Emperor’s father-in-law, with the filial obligations that brought. Eventually, the Fujiwara regents began to compel the Emperors to abdicate as soon as they were old enough to rule on their own. These Retired Emperors often became Buddhist monks and were referred to as Cloistered Emperors. By 1000, the Fujiwara regent was the emperor of Japan in all but name, while the reigning Emperor was a figurehead.

In any other country, it is likely that the people who had the power behind the throne would have grown weary of the pretense and seized the throne themselves, as the Frankish Carolingians had overthrown the Merovingians and were overthrown in their turn by the French Capets, or the succeeding dynasties of China had overthrown one another. In Japan, however, this was unthinkable. One of the ideas that the Japanese had not taken from Chinese politics was the concept of the Mandate of Heaven. The Japanese Emperor was the direct descendant of the Sun Goddess and thus always had the Mandate of Heaven, whatever the failings of his person or his line. The Fujiwaras had to be content with being regents.

In time, the Fujiwaras declined and the Imperial House began to reassert itself. In a characteristically Japanese fashion, the reigning Emperors, themselves, did not attempt to regain power. Instead, the Retired Emperors took power. This was the known as Cloistered Rule. So, during the period of Cloistered Rule, Japan was ruled by an all-powerful Emperor, who was in fact, a figurehead, with a Regent or Chief Minister from the Fujiwara Clan who was supposed to be powerful, but was another figurehead, while the real power was held by a former emperor who was in theory, merely a monk. It seems unnecessarily baroque and complicated, but the Japanese have generally preferred rule by consensus rather than by a single strong man. The system seemed to work well enough.

Then again, perhaps it did not. The members of the Imperial Court at Heian always had a strong contempt for common people and the outer provinces of Japan, what we might refer to as flyover country. For the court nobles, the common people were little better than domestic animals, while the military aristocracy who fought off the northern barbarians were themselves semi-barbarians. The Imperial Court became more insular and isolated from the concerns of the provinces. The members of the court became more concerned with their rank and position at court than with administrating the country. As a result, the military leaders in the provinces began to gain power and by 1185, after a series of struggles between several Retired Emperors and military clans related to the Imperial Family, a warlord named Minamoto no Yoritomo took power as the first Shogun (Supreme General), ending the Heian Period, and establishing the military dictatorship of the Shoguns that lasted through several dynasties of Shoguns until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The Imperial Court and the court nobility continued as before except they had no power and depended on the Shoguns for funds.

Emperors still occasionally abdicated in favor of their successor, but the custom of Cloistered Rule ended with the end of the Heian Period. The last Emperor to abdicate was Kokaku who reigned from 1779-1817. His position as Retired Emperor caused some trouble with the Tokugawa Shoguns, and it is perhaps not coincidental that from his reign, and retirement, the Imperial Court began the process of asserting itself against the Shoguns.

I don’t know when the laws about abdication were changed or whether the current law in Japan actually prohibits an Emperor from resigning or whether there is simply no provision for abdication. Judging from the article, it would seem to be the latter case. If so, than I can’t imagine there would be any reason to deny Akihito’s wish to abdicate, especially considering his age and health. There is, after all, ample precedent in Japanese history.

Who is David Duke?

August 15, 2016

Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke has come out of whatever rock he has been hiding under to express his support for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, so naturally National Public Radio had to go speak with him about his endorsement and his run for a Senate seat from his native state Louisiana.

Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke is running for U.S. Senate and tells NPR that he believes he’ll be getting the votes of Donald Trump supporters.

And he reiterated his own support for Trump, saying he’s “100 percent behind” the Republican presidential candidate’s agenda.

“As a United States senator, nobody will be more supportive of his legislative agenda, his Supreme Court agenda, than I will,” Duke said.

Trump, while he once said he didn’t know enough about Duke to comment on him, has several times disavowed endorsements by Duke. But that hasn’t stopped some white supremacists from publicly supporting Trump’s campaign.

Duke says that Trump’s attacks on Muslims and illegal immigration have brought his own beliefs into the mainstream.

The former KKK grand wizard, who describes himself as advocating for European-Americans, filed to run for an open Senate seat in Louisiana just one day after the Republican National Convention.

Who is David Duke. anyway, and why should anyone care who he endorses or what he is doing?

As noted, David Duke was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. To be more precise, Duke was the Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan from 1974 to 1980. This is not as impressive as it might seem. The Ku Klux Klan hasn’t really existed since the 1930’s, at least not as a single national organization with a centralized leadership. Instead, the Ku Klux Klan has become a number of small fragmented groups with a handful of members. These rival Klans tend to hate each other, along with other racist groups, as much as they hate Blacks, Jews, the federal government and other perceived enemies. Because there is not any such thing as the Ku Klux Klan is existence any more, anyone with a few followers can start his own Klan with and declare himself Grand Wizard or Imperial Dragon or any other title he wishes. That is just what David Duke did. In 1974 founded the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and made himself Grand Wizard.

Duke didn’t fit the common stereotype of a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. He was not a drunken red neck constantly spouting racial slurs, but an articulate, educated, and telegenic figure who preferred to dress in business suits rather than Klan robes. He tried to change the Klan’s image from a band of violent racists to something like a White civil rights organization with an emphasis on nonviolence and legality. As a result, he became popular on the talk show circuit where liberal talk show hosts, like Phil Donahue, could present him as the charismatic leader of the new, growing and dangerous Ku Klux Klan.

It was all a lie. Duke’s Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was not rapidly growing in numbers and influence.The Klan remained divided and fractious and the more violent and old fashioned Klans, like Duke’s rival Bill Wilkinson’s Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan were actually more popular among racists. Duke himself was not a particularly good administrator or leader. In the late 1970’s, a reporter for the Tennesean named Jerry Thompson managed to infiltrate the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the Invisible Empire and discovered that Duke’s organization was a shambles. Meetings were rare and not well attended. Duke found it difficult to gather a quorum for Thompson’s initiation ceremony. The group seemed to exist more for Duke’s publicity than anything else. By contrast, Thompson found the Invisible Empire frightening with their more violent rhetoric and carrying guns everywhere. Even so, Wilkinson’s group had few members and despite a real  danger of individual Klansmen committing violent crimes, the organization as a whole was fairly ineffective. Thompson tried to play up the Klan threat in his book, My Life in the Klan, but all his investigative journalism managed to convey was how ridiculous Duke and the Ku Klux Klan actually were.

David Duke resigned his position as Grand Wizard in 1980 under somewhat murky circumstances. He claimed that he had become disenchanted because of the associations between the Klan and violence, particularly when he had no power to stop other Klans from committing violent acts. Instead, Duke decided to form a new organization the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP). There were allegations that he had used funds from the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to renovate his home. Jerry Thompson reported that Duke had met with Wilkinson and agreed to sell him the membership list for his organization. This was seen as a betrayal by many of Duke’s former associates.

Since then, David Duke has been busy writing and promoting his racist and anti-Semitic views. He was convicted of tax fraud and mail fraud back in 2002. He has also run for public office and generally losing. He did manage to win election to the Louisiana House of Representatives where he served from 1989-1992. He does not seem to have been a very effective legislator. Duke has generally run as a Republican, although he began as a Democrat and joined Ross Perot‘s Reform Party in 2000, working for Pat Buchanan.

The answer to the question, “who is David Duke?”, then, is that he is nobody of importance. David Duke is a failed politician and a failed leader of a fringe movement. There is no reason for anybody to really care what David Duke thinks on any issue. So, why does NPR think Duke’s opinions are worth reading? Maybe the editor’s note at the beginning of the article can explain.

NPR spoke with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who supports Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, because Duke represents the way in which white supremacists attach themselves to Trump’s campaign.

The logic is that because white supremacists support Donald Trump, Donald Trump must be a white supremacist. It doesn’t matter that Donald Trump is hardly running on a white supremacist platform. He has said some unpleasant things about illegal immigrants and Islamic terrorists, but I do not believe that it is racist to insist that we maintain some control over who gets into our country. This is simply guilt by association. Not even association, since I doubt that Donald Trump has ever met David Duke and may well have been telling the truth when he said he had never heard of him.

It is odd that no one seems inclined to look into the past associates of any Democrats. Barack Obama began his political career in the apartment of a left-wing terrorist and attended a church with a racist, anti-American pastor for many years. The Clintons have a number of unsavory acquaintances, not to mention their corrupt dealings with their Clinton Foundation. None of that seems to matter as much as a nobody like David Duke endorsing Donald Trump, just as the Clintons’ obvious corruption is somehow of far less importance than Donald Trump’s more idiotic public comments.

We have had a biased media for quite a long time, but I don’t think that I have ever seen them so determined to choose a winner for the next election, even if it means sacrificing what little integrity they still have and even if it means outright deception. I have never liked Donald Trump very much and I wish that someone else had been the Republican nominee, but I have to say that anyone who the liberal media hates so much must be doing something right.

 

Abolish the Police

July 18, 2016

A Black Lives Matter activist named Jessica Disu has called for the police to be abolished during what was called a heated discussion on the Kelly File, as reported on Fox News.

A Black Lives Matter activist from Chicago argued during a heated Kelly File discussion that American police forces should be abolished.

“Here are the solutions. We need to abolish the police, period. Demilitarize the police, disarm the police, and we need to come up with community solutions for transformative justice,” said Jessica Disu, drawing some shocked reactions.

The conversation started with Megyn Kelly asking the panel – which included Black Rights Matter supporters, law enforcement officers, conservative commentators and religious leaders – about some who praised the Dallas gunman.

Disu, who described herself as a community organizer, said that Black Lives Matter has never called for violence against anyone.

She did not comment when Kelly pointed out that some protesters have called for “dead cops.”

Megyn Kelly asked her how citizens would be protected if police forces were “abolished.”

“We need to come up with community solutions. The police force in this country began as slave patrol,” Disu argued.

The suggestion is not actually as crazy as it sounds. We believe that having a professional, uniformed, quasi-military style police force is essential for maintaining order in our communities, but in fact, the idea of a body of police officers with the duty of capturing criminals and investigating crimes is a surprisingly recent one, dating back only to the early to middle nineteenth century. Before that time there were no policemen, as we know them. Of course, there have been officials charged with maintaining law and order for as long as human beings have had governments, various forms of county sheriffs. town constables, city watchmen, etc. For the most part, these officials have had the duty of enforcing court orders, serving warrants, responding to citizen’s complaints, and keeping order. Pursuing criminals wasn’t their main function. In most cases, in the ancient and medieval eras, it was up to the victim of a crime and his family to resolve crimes committed against them and to bring the criminal to the attention of the magistrates. Often, there were no public prosecutors, as we know them, and it was up to the victim to bring charges against the criminal in court. If the identity of the criminal were not known, the victims could hire a thief-taker, something like a modern private investigator, to track down and capture the criminal.

This system probably worked well enough in a Medieval setting of a rural country with small villages where everyone knew each other. Social pressure would have prevented most people from committing crimes and it wasn’t too difficult to discover who was responsible for a theft or murder, etc. It perhaps worked less well in the larger cities of pre-industrial Europe, but conditions were probably manageable, at least for the elite. With the industrial revolution, cities such as London or Paris began to grow in population to an extent unprecedented in European history. There were large numbers of people moving to the cities in search of jobs and as a result crime increased to unprecedented levels. It was becoming obvious that something better was needed.

Robert Peel is often credited with establishing the first metropolitan police force in London in, although the gendarmes established by Napoleon in France anticipated his reforms in some respects. Robert Peel was a Conservative politician who would go on to become Prime Minister in 1834-1835 and 1841-1846, when he would prove himself to be something of a reformer. In 1829, Peel was serving as Home Secretary and had become greatly concerned over the rise in crime in London and other British cities. Acting on the recommendations of the committee he had created to resolve the problem, Peel got Parliament to pass the Metropolitan Police Act which created the first, tu, metropolitan police in history.

Strange as it may seem, the idea of having uniformed police patrolling the streets of London was fairly controversial when the Metropolitan Police Act was passed. For many Londoners, the idea of a semi-military force keeping order seemed more fitting for the despotic regimes of the Continent than for a free country like England. The freedom loving Englishmen, along with their former colonists in America had a particular horror of a large standing army as an instrument of tyranny. Kings used such forces to impose their will on the people. For this reason, Peel was anxious to emphasize that the new police force was not a military organization, but was a politically neutral body accountable to the public it served. The police wore blue uniforms, in contrast to red worn by British soldiers (redcoats) and carried no weapon except a club and a rattle, later replaced by a whistle, to call for assistance and he used no military ranks, except for sergeant. Above all, Peel saw his new police force as part of the public, not as something separate. “The police are the public and the public are the police”, he often said.

The London Metropolitan Police proved to be effective at controlling crime and police forces based on Peel’s principles were soon organized in other cities in Britain and the United States. Professional police forces like Peel’s have become the norm all over the world to the point where it is simply inconceivable for a modern society to be run without them, yet I wonder what Robert Peel would make of what we have made of his creation. I think he would be alarmed at the extent in which his critics have been proven right.

Remember that the most important principle on which Peel organized the London police around was the idea that the police were not soldiers occupying the city of London but were a professional, civilian organization dedicated to serving the public. Somehow, over the last century that principle has been eroded. All too often, the police today are organized on explicitly military lines with military-style ranks, uniforms and training. We have heavily armed police officers in armored personnel carriers and Special Weapons and Tactics units being increasingly used to perform the normal duties of police work. Inevitably, people who are trained almost as soldiers begin to act like members of an occupying army instead of public servants, particularly in areas where the ethnicity of the police differs from that of the community. They become warrior cops instead of public guardians.

An excellent question

An excellent question

I do not favor abolishing the police. We cannot go back to the simpler times in which a society could get by with informal law enforcement. Yet, maybe it is time to have sort sort of public discussion what sort of law enforcement serves us best in the twenty-first century. We may want to move away from the warrior cop model in which the police become almost as dangerous to civilians as the criminals towards a police force more integrated with the communities they serve. Demilitarizing the police seems to be a good first step. we certainly want to stop this tendency to see the police and the civilians as somehow being opposing sides. Both the police and the public, at least theoretically, want the same things; safe places to live.

For this reason, movements like Black Lives Matter and community organizers like Jessica Disu are doing more harm than good. By all means, police officers who break the law should be punished, and the police do not do their side any favors when they refuse to assist in the prosecuting wrongdoers in their ranks, but it is reckless and irresponsible to paint all police officers as racists bent on killing black men for no reason. This antagonism can only make needed reforms more difficult to enact, particularly when abuses which should concern everyone; Black and White, police and civilian become a matter of Black versus White and police against the civilians. We all have to learn to stand together or we will fall divided.


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