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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

My Civil War Ancestors: Benjamin Franklin McDaniel


In most cases, that of Peter Pelt being a sad exception, very little in the way of detailed stories is remembered regarding my relatives during the War Between the States.  The documentation for Benjamin Franklin McDaniel (September 1843 -- 3 March 1926) is a welcome exception, with most of the story coming from his application to the state of Florida for a pension as a Civil War veteran.

One interesting fact that shows up immediately is that the US War Department did not have any problem with helping Confederate veterans get their benefits.  The extreme bitterness of the War had passed, and many Confederate veterans were still alive, so they were not as easy to caricature as they are today.  In fact, Joseph Wheeler, who had been a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army and then, in the Spanish-American War, a major general in the US Army, died just a year before McDaniel's pension application.
The records show that Benjamin McDaniel, private, Company E, 4th Battalion Florida Infantry, also designated Company L, 11th Florida Infantry Confederate States Army, was enlisted October 12, 1863. On the muster roll of the company for November and December, 1864, last on file, he is reported absent sick in hospital at Richmond, Virginia, since September 17, 1864. 

The Union records of prisoners of war show that one Benjamin F. McDaniel, private (company not stated), 11th Florida Infantry, Confederate States Army, was surrendered with the regiment May 11, 1865, at Quincy, Florida, and paroled May 24, 1865, at that place. 

F. C. Ainsworth 
The Adjutant General
Why he was in Quincy at the end of the war is explained a bit further down.
... to the very best of my recollection I left Richmond during the latter part of the month of Dec 1864 under a sixty day furlow which later, owning to my continued bad health was extended thirty days about the expiration of the furlow. I started back to Richmond and got as far as Fort Gaines, Ga. at which place I was reliably informed that the Rail Roads were torn up and it would be impossible for me to get to my Company. I then returned home and in a very short while the Confederate Army surrendered. My health was at this time was not at all good.
Since he had sixty days of furlough beginning in late December 1864, followed by an additional thirty days, and since he does not mention it, he probably missed the Battle of Natural Bridge (March 6, 1865).  Presumably he was at his home in Wewahitchka at the time of the battle, and the distance from Wewahitchka to the battlefield is about 90 miles -- too far for him to have made it in the time available, even if word had gotten to him and he had been physically able to fight.  

One part of the documentation supplied for his application is a list supplied by Fred L. Robertson, who is in some places referred to as a colonel and in some places called a general.  Robertson played an important role in collecting and preserving information about soldiers from Florida, particularly in his book Soldiers of Florida in the Seminole Indian, Civil and Spanish-American Wars.  It's surprising how much bitterness he shows toward the men who served in the Home Guard so long after the war.  No doubt there were abuses, but I get the strong impression that just about every able-bodied man was sent to the front, and those left as Home Guard might well have been more hindrance than help.  Besides, there are more appropriate targets for his wrath:  the deserters who went over to the Union side, and even more the deserters from both sides who took advantage of the absence of able-bodied men to indulge themselves in crime.
Dear Sir: 
Yours of the 30th Ult. to hand and I give you the names of several members of the Company, and others of the regiment with the Post Office address of each. Out of these I sincerely hope you will be able to establish the needed proof. It is often extremely difficult to prove the record of the man who went to the front but Home Guards and Reserves can make all the proof they want and without trouble because neither the applicant or the witnesses ever got in reach of danger and, not being exposed they kept healthy. 

Very truly yours, 
Fred L. Robertson

The last few documents make for sad reading.  McDaniel suffered from the usual ailments of old age, and the medicine available a century ago was able to do little to help him.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Presidential Medal of Freedom

Ugh, it's happening again.

   
Listen, I liked Yogi Berra -- at least I admire his skill as an athlete and his way with words, and he seems to have only friends among his colleagues -- but I think Obama is wrong to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  The same is true of John Wayne; Ronald Reagan was wrong to give him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  If we want to create a medal for the president's favorite performer, my only objection is the award is frivolous (almost as much so as the Nobel Peace Prize).  

Just don't say that the award is "America's highest civilian honor".  By its very nature, surely the Gold Lifesaving Medal, which the Coast Guard can issue to anyone, including civilians, must be a higher honor -- no acting, singing, or sports accomplishment can truly be more meritorious than saving a life!  Particularly when civilians risk their lives to save the lives of strangers -- as Lenny Skutnik did when Air Florida Flight 90 struck the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, D.C. -- whatever the nation's highest civilian honor is, they should have it.  A good case could also be made for someone like Chesley Sullenberger, whose skill, calmness, and good judgment saved many lives.


What Is Poetry?

Perhaps the place to start is by looking at what poetry is not.

Poetry does not consist of "artistically" placed line breaks, ignoring capitalization, or other gimmicks of typesetting.  Nor is a powerful use of the language with memorable phrases necessarily poetry.  Consider the following familiar passage:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
These are stirring words, and the passage is a beautiful use of the English language, but it is not poetry; nor would it become poetry merely by writing it in this form: 

we hold these
truths 
to be self-evident, that 
all men 
are created EQUAL, 
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable 
RIGHTS, 
that among these are 
Life, 
Liberty 
and the pursuit of Happiness....

Others may disagree, but I maintain that this Tony Bennett song is not merely bad poetry, it is not poetry at all: 

If I ruled the world
Every man would be as free as a bird
Every voice would be a voice to be heard
Take my word we would treasure each day that occurred....

Ugh!  Look at what is happening there:  the need to force each line to rhyme with "bird" is ruling over the composition like a Sith Lord, cruel and despotic.  There is no feeling that the rhyme occurred naturally and the poet had real freedom.

I am not, therefore, insisting that rhyming is the essence of poetry, so that anything that rhymes is a poem, and anything that does not rhyme is not a poem.  For example, although my background means that I surely cannot fully appreciate it, I acknowledge that Oriental poetry, such as genuine Japanese haikus, really are poetry.

So what is poetry?  My answer is that poetry is text that has been voluntarily submitted to a significant arbitrary constraint but is written with such skill that the constraint does not seem to limit or force the text.  The constraint is arbitrary, but there must be a constraint.  The constraint needs to be "significant" and "voluntary", or else a term paper or business letter (both of which have the constraint of standard forms) would qualify.  Let me know if you have a counter-proposal!

Let me close with a particularly nice passage from "The Garden Party" by Hillaire Belloc:

For the hoary social curse
Gets hoarier and hoarier,
And it stinks a trifle worse
 
Than in 
The days of Queen Victoria,
 
when 
  They married and gave in marriage,
They danced at the County Hall,
And some of them kept a carriage.
AND THE FLOOD DESTROYED THEM ALL.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Jeb Bush, Baby Hitler, and Prayer

Jeb Bush has recently said that if he could, he would go back in time and kill Hitler while the latter was still an innocent baby.  This was the wrong answer to a question that should have been ignored, and it invites some follow-up questions.  
Close-up photograph of a male baby (4424012923)
© Milan Nykodym, Czech Republic [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

  • Since you are willing to kill an innocent baby because you think it will save tens of millions, Mr. Bush, you apparently believe that the ends justify the means, as long as the ends are serious enough. What if you could save the most lives by deliberately murdering a baby who would not have grown up to be a mass murderer?  What if you "knew" that stabbing to death a baby who would have died of asthma at age 10 anyhow would save over a hundred million lives?  Would you murder that baby?
  • What if we were not talking about the past?  Suppose an angel with demonstrably preternatural abilities told you tomorrow that you could save a billion lives by murdering a certain baby.  Are you in fact prepared to murder this baby?
    • Would it matter whether the baby were a foreigner or an American?
    • Would it matter if the baby were your own grandchild?
  • What if you were not asked to murder a baby, but simply to offer a pinch of incense in worship of Satan?  Would your answer still be, "Hell yeah!"?
  • The most troubling questions probably revolve around situations that Jeb Bush might in fact face during his hypothetical presidency.  Suppose that all the important leaders of ISIS were known to be meeting in the basement of a building full of children -- not just "minors", who may actually be 17 years old, but youngsters who were unambiguously children, aged 8 and younger.  Your National Security Staff are all in agreement that this is a very real opportunity decapitate ISIS and throw them into so much chaos that they would fall apart in the face of the enemies they have already made -- but the only way to be sure is to completely destroy the building, leaving no survivors, say with a bunker-buster followed by two daisy-cutters.
    • Would you drop the bomb if the children are the families of the ISIS leadership?
    • Would you drop the bomb if the children are Syrian civilians?
    • Would you drop the bomb if the children are Western hostages -- American, British, and Canadian children?
Sometimes saying "Hell yeah" is literally saying yes to Hell.

Of course, we can take some comfort in the fact that time travel is, at the very least, technologically impossible, so the question asked of Bush is merely hypothetical.  But what about prayer?  Given that God is omnipotent, and God exists outside of time, is it appropriate to ask God to bring about some effect in the past?

My answer is that it is fine to pray for some outcome in the past if you don't know what happened, but it is wrong to pray for something to happen if you already know it didn't happen.  So let's say you have a Jewish great-uncle who was last seen in Warsaw just before the German invasion in 1939.  Things look very bleak for him, but you cannot be sure he was unable to hide, change his identity, and perhaps end up in a different country at the end of the war with no knowledge that any of his family survived.  Maybe he was never captured, maybe he survived, maybe he was able to lead a long and fairly happy life somewhere; you should certainly be able to pray for all these things, and God will already have known about your prayer back in 1939.  

On the other hand, we know that Adolf Hitler did not die as a baby, so we can be sure that his survival was, in some sense at least, the will of God.  In cases regarding the future, we can almost never be sure what the will of God actually is for events (as opposed to how we are to behave), and even those few events which we are assured will definitely happen are rather lacking in detail.  The past, however, is different:  we can often remember it or reconstruct it from the evidence in great detail, and I think it is safe to say that whatever has actually happened does represent what has been called God's "permissive will".  This, of course, is fraught with all the difficulties of the Problem of Evil, because we who know imperfectly and love imperfectly will often desire things different from what is planned by God, Who knows perfectly and loves perfectly.  To say that the Holocaust was part of God's permissive will is not really any different than to say that God did in fact permit the Holocaust; both are undoubtedly true, though I dare say it is well beyond human understanding to know why and even how either can be true.  At any rate, the phrase "Thy will be done" is at least implicitly present in every true prayer; any request for something known to be contrary to the will of God is not really a prayer at all.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Terminally Ill Man Sentenced to Death

Yesterday, Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr., was sentenced to death for three murders.  This was not a crime of passion, as I suppose is most often the case for murders within families or between lovers -- those cannot exactly be excused, but in many cases they can be pitied, because bad decisions based on raging emotions is a part of human frailty with which we are all familiar.  Nor was this even the callous indifference to life shown by, for example, a bank robber who murders a guard in an effort to get to the cash.  This was murder for the sake of murder, the outgrowth of a hatred that is figuratively demonic -- and perhaps more truly than merely figuratively.

According to a doctor's testimony, Miller is unlikely to live more than a half dozen years.  I'm not sure about the process in Kansas, but given the inevitable appeals, the controversies over the drugs typically used to carry out death sentences and the consequent limited availability of those drugs, and similar considerations, it seems unlikely that the executioner will come for Miller before the Grim Reaper does.  What good does it do to pronounce a sentence that the state will not actually carry out, then?

The sentence was worthwhile and good because it tells the truth about the moral gravity of Miller's crime.  He probably will not die at the hands of the citizens of Kansas, but he deserves to.  This is about the value of his victims, both those he intended to kill and those he actually killed, but it is also about the terrible dignity that is unique to man among the animals:  there is a moral, spiritual dimension to the decisions we make; our choices really matter.  This is a truth that could not be so adequately proclaimed if the only option had been to sentence Miller to prison for twenty five years to life.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Fort Necessity and Braddock's Defeat


Last week I attended the second annual meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Section of the American Physical Society in Morgantown, WV, but I saved a little money by staying in a hotel in Uniontown, PA.  It turns out this is close to the site of Fort Necessity, which I would have wanted to visit anyhow, but due to my recent interest in genealogy, it was almost a requirement.

The general location is in the middle of some high, steep hills, so one would expect the fort to make use of the terrain to make it more defensible.  Probably this would not have changed the outcome, but the fact is that Washington sited the fort in a level meadow with trees only a few dozen yards from the walls.  It was tiny and pathetic.  Just look at these "earthworks" -- too small to hide behind, let alone stop a charging enemy.  It's as though Washington thought earthworks are a necessary part of a fort, but he had no idea what function they were meant to play.  No wonder the American Indian allies he was trying to recruit were unimpressed and declined to stay.


The earthworks are presumably original, but the fort is reconstructed on the basis of archeology and, probably, the written accounts of witnesses. 



A "fort" was built by my ancestors either before or after the 1838 Indian raid that killed the elderly Thomas Cupples Richards, together with much of his family.  The historical marker says before:
Fort Place, forerunner of Wewahitchka, located one-quarter mile East was constructed in the early 1830's as a refuge from hostile Indians. It consisted of a hewn log blockhouse equipped with portholes for firearms, and was enclosed within a two acre stockade. No remains of Fort Place are visible today.
I never thought this sounded much like a "fort", but it was larger and apparently better defended than Fort Necessity. 

My genealogical connection to Fort Necessity is debatable.  I am maybe descended from Col. Joshua Fry, who was supposed to command the Virginia expedition but who fell off his horse and died in Cumberland, MD.  It all depends on whether Cherry Ann Nelson, who married Daniel Thomas Richards, was in fact the great-granddaughter of the Joseph Nelson (1750-1837) who married Catherine O'Bannon.  Most genealogies on ancestry.com indicate this, but on what basis I am not sure. Not only does she not appear in Descendants of John Nelson, Sr.- Mary Toby, Stafford County, Virginia 1740-1959 with Related Families, neither do her father (Joseph Nelson, 1806-1840) or mother (Sarah Ann McDavid, 1809-1860).
 


Close by is the grave of Edward Braddock, who was perhaps too honest, or more likely insufficiently diplomatic, antagonized the local Indians, and paid with his life.  According to his obituary, George Richards (1727-1818) was with Washington at Braddock's Defeat.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

My Civil War Ancestors: James Wallace Conoly


All my previous posts in this series have been from my father's side of the family, but the stories from my mother's side are similar.  A natural place to start is with James Wallace Conoly (2 Jul 1840 -- 3 Jul 1922), because my mother's maiden name was Conoley (note the slight change in spelling).  In fact, I met his son, my great-grandfather William Furney Conoley (27 Sep 1871 -- Aug 1978) -- or, more accurately, I was in the same room with him and saw him, since I was a child with nothing to say to a man over 100, and he in turn was blind and mostly deaf.

The only stories from the meeting are ones I have heard from my dad, though I find nothing in my own memory to contradict them.  The first is that Great-Granddaddy Conoley kept asking for "something sweet in my mouth, please!"  Being blind, deaf, and confined to a wheelchair, good food was about the only pleasure left to him, but the food at the nursing home was what we have all come to expect from nursing homes:  bland, unsalted, and unsweetened.  The other is that there was a specific yell that had to be made right into his ear that would let him know that family had come.  This was a yell that had been used in his youth to announce that the person approaching was a member of the family, and not, I suppose, a potential enemy.   Theodore Roosevelt discusses in Through the Brazilian Wilderness how this same custom is practically universal among those who live in the wilderness:
The early Saxons in England deemed it legal to kill any man who came through the woods without shouting or blowing a horn; and in Nhambiquara land at the present time it is against etiquette, and may be very unhealthy, to come through the woods toward strangers without loudly announcing one's presence.
Regarding my great-great grandfather, James Wallace Conoly, though, I have no real stories, probably in no small part because my grandfather, Roy Conoley, Sr., was not particularly close to my brother and me.  At any rate, if he passed on any stories about his grandfather, they were not to me.  

This leaves me with just the historical record, which is quite bare.  In the 1860 census, James Wallace Conoly was living in a household headed by his mother, Ann (Patterson) Conoly (45) and a Duncan Matthews (72).  Since Ann Conoly's mother had been Sarah (Matthews) Patterson, this Duncan was probably an uncle of hers on her mother's side.  Two brothers and one sister of James W. Conoly rounded out the family.  As in each case I've been able to trace, there were no slaves owned by my ancestors at the time of the Civil War.

When the war started, he joined Company D of the 2nd North Carolina Cavalry, and North Carolina Troops 1861-1865:  A Roster contains only these few lines about him (on page 131 of volume 2):
CONOLY, JAMES WALLACE, Corporal
Enlisted in Cumberland County at age 20, July 22, 1861 for the war.  Mustered in as Private and appointed Corporal April 1-September 30, 1864.  Present or accounted for through September 1864.
His pension application contains the statement,
During the fight in White Oak Swamp in Northern Virginia I was wounded in my right arm.  I cannot give exact date but it was in the month of September 1863.  However, my wound did not disable me for the remainder of the war.
James Wallace Conoly died in the same North Carolina county (Robeson) in which he had been born and to which his grandfather and great-grandfather, both named Daniel Conoly, had moved from Scotland.  His son William Furney Conoley moved to Florida about 1900.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Pets and the Afterlife

By Virginia State Parks staff (Ghost Dog Uploaded by AlbertHerring) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This is a good time of year for some speculation about what role, if any, animals in general and pets in particular might have in the afterlife.  The traditional conclusion, of course, is that they have none, but until it can be shown to me that this is actually a binding Teaching of the Catholic Church, I will feel free to entertain other ideas.

Let me begin by putting forth a few thoughts and observations that can serve as the raw material for a hypothesis (though certainly not a hypothesis in any of the natural sciences).
  1. Ghosts are usually -- in fact almost without exception -- reported wearing clothes.  Most ghost stories are pure fiction, of course, and most sightings are the result of excessive imagination or some sort of altered state of consciousness, but anyone who believes in God, angels and demons, the survival of the soul, and the final resurrection should be open to the possibility that sometimes, for reasons that may not be clear to us, the spirits of deceased humans may have some business in our world.  The fact of ghosts wearing clothes, though, is frequently noted with surprise or even derision; after all, clothes are not actually a part of a living person, right?  Consider, though:  hair is also not living (at least above the root), and it likewise contains little DNA; hair is basically a kind of natural clothing that mammals produce for themselves.  No one seems to expect ghosts, should they appear, to appear without hair or nails, so why should clothing be any different?  After all, ...
  2. According to Peter Kreeft, though I forget in which book, it is a mistake to picture, as most people do, the body containing the soul.  A more accurate picture would be the soul containing the body.  In fact, Abbot Alois Wiesinger goes quite a bit farther in Occult Phenomena in the Light of Theology.  Wiesinger claims that the traditional belief is that Adam had the preternatural gift to understand and control objects outside his body.  He even claims that this remains possible after the Fall under certain circumstances, though he emphasizes that it is a very bad idea to attempt to extend the soul beyond the body.
  3. Back to reported ghosts.  One thing that stands out is that although animal ghosts are reported, they are almost always the ghosts of pets or of working animals (mostly horses, especially when ridden by a human ghost or pulling a ghostly wagon or carriage).  Wild animals and food animals seem not to leave ghosts.  The obvious objection is that if ghosts are the effect of psychological biases, or even disorders, it makes sense that we would most often see as ghosts the animals we interact with while they are alive; once again, I assume there is more to the story than that, though.  Also, I have to exclude "animals" that are believed to be demonic manifestations -- hell hounds, the Black Shuck, etc.
  4. Finally, animals that become cherished pets often behave in ways that are surprising for animals.  Part of this surprise is no doubt due to the inadequate credit we give animals -- wild elephants and chimps have been observed to grieve the death of family members, for example -- but again, nearly every culture has stories of dogs who guarded the graves of their masters until they themselves died.  On a less dramatic level, it has often been observed that pets and their owners start to look alike, even physically; much more obvious is that they begin to act alike, at least as regards being friendly, or suspicious, or nervous, etc.
The cat is also a ghost, as the full performance makes clear.

At this point my conjecture should be fairly obvious:  pets become extensions of their owners, and so they participate in some way in their owners' immortality.

If true, this would parallel our relationship to Christ.  The Church is, after all, called the Body of Christ, and each Christian is a member of that Body -- not by nature, but by adoption, because we are loved.  As such, we participate in His immortality.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Science and the Legend of Menelik of Ethiopia

There is a tradition in Ethiopia that their kings were descended directly from King Solomon through Menelik, a son he allegedly had with the Queen of Sheba.  The legend goes on to say that when he was a young man, Menelik visited his father Solomon, and when he returned he brought with him the eldest son of the high priest, 1000 people from each of the 12 tribes (and also from the Levites, no doubt), and the Ark of the Covenant.

Now I am not Ethiopian, and on the basis of 2 Maccabees I doubt the story about them having the Ark.  (I suspect they have an ancient copy of the Ark, which over the centuries has become confused with the original, with no intent to deceive being necessary for the confusion.)  However, there is an interesting story on ScienceDaily.com in which genetics has shown that there was a 
mysterious migratory event which occurred roughly 3,000 years ago, known as the 'Eurasian backflow', when people from regions of Western Eurasia such as the Near East and Anatolia suddenly flooded back into the Horn of Africa.
Both the time and the place are a suggestively good fit to the Ethiopian legend.  Even if some of the details were later embellished, it appears the legend is a memory of a real event.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Fallacy of Minority Dissent

Wednesday I came across the following passage:
For example, it takes a certain level of hubris for a man to take a public stand on the threat of global warming when he has no background in the subject, and when the evidence for global warming is sketchy.
Now here's the thing:  William Fitzpatrick, who made that quote about the Pope, appears to have "no background in the subject", as he says of the Pope.  That means that for him to say that "the evidence for global warming is sketchy" requires him to believe that it is not necessary to be an expert to determine whether the science behind climate change is valid or plausible; a layman such as himself must be reasonably able to make that call.  If he makes that admission, though, it applies as much to Pope Francis as to William Fitzgerald.  This really is a case of Tu Quoque; it shows that Fitzgerald displays his own hubris, by his own standards, in making the charge of hubris against Pope Francis.  Of course that doesn't prove that Fitzgerald is wrong, only that he exercised poor judgment in choosing this particular argument.

In some of the defense of Fitzgerald in the comments underneath his post, though, one finds a fallacy that seems to be quite common these days.  Undoubtedly it has a proper name, but it doesn't quite fit into any of the categories I have run across.  It is related to the appeal to authority.  The essence of it is this:  If any expert can be found who dissents with the consensus on a subject of his expertise, that is sufficient to prove that there is a reasonable doubt about the consensus view. 

There are two basic problems with this.  The first is that not all people claiming to be "experts" have equal claim.  Just because someone is a commercial pilot does not mean he is a good pilot; sometimes a bad pilot falls through the cracks.  The same is true of engineers, scientists, doctors, NFL coaches, generals, CEO's -- pretty much every conceivable specialization.  That's true even if we are talking about specializations with high standards and relatively objective criteria.

The second problem is the basic cussedness of mankind.  By this I mean every kind of pigheadedness, from the desire to contradict a personal or professional rival to what Edgar Allan Poe called "The Imp of the Perverse".  This cussedness is probably the best explanation why no idea is too ridiculous to attract at least some believers.

As a result, it is impossible to say whether objections to a consensus by the relevant experts are plausible and valid without actually understanding both the reason for the consensus and the reason for the objection.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

My Civil War Ancestors: Charles Wesley Hines


In the Eastern Orthodox Churches, a married man can become a priest, but a priest who is single or widowed is not allowed to marry.  The joke is, then, that any woman who desperately wants to find a husband should just hang around an Orthodox seminary in the days leading up to ordination, as the reality of "now or never" hits the seminarians.  Something of the same urgency is no doubt felt on the eve of any war by the men who will do the fighting; they may not lower their standards, but they are likely to be more prompt with their proposals.  Be that as it may, Charles Wesley Hines married Martha Ann Parrott (1842-1914) on 17 January 1861 -- just one day after the opening of the Georgia Secession Convention.  Their one child, my great-great grandmother Martha Wesley Hines, was born on 26 October 1861 -- just over nine months from the wedding.

Charles Wesley Hines was born on 3 November 1834 to Samuel and Susannah Hines.  His mother's maiden name was Miller, but her father's full name seems to have been lost; she was from Savannah, Georgia, and Mason Covington Miller's family had come from South Carolina, so they may or may not have been somehow related.  Regardless, they eventually became related, as her granddaughter Martha Wesley Hines married Levi Henderson Miller, Mason C. Miller's son.

The father of Charles Wesley Hines was one of a long line of men from Milford, Connecticut, named Samuel Hine, the final "s" being added after he moved to Georgia.  (I will write about the Hine family later, since they were involved in the Revolutionary War.)  As a result, although I have found no actual "brother vs brother" in my family tree (the desertion of Peter Pelt came close), it is practically certain that C. W. Hines had first cousins on the other side when he enlisted as a 3rd corporal in Company H of the 29th Georgia Infantry on 1 October 1861.

As is so often the case, all the really interesting stories appear to have been lost to time.  C. W. Hines worked his way up to full sergeant, but on 19 September 1863 he, like Daniel Thomas Richards, was wounded at Chickamauga.  Unlike Daniel Richards, he did not survive, succumbing to his injuries in a field hospital on 25 September 1863.  He is buried in the Marietta Confederate Cemetery.

One interesting thing is that although his widow Martha was eligible to apply for a pension from the state of Georgia, there is no record of her ever having applied for it.  This seems to have been the typical case; in fact, Mason Covington Miller is the only ancestor I know of who applied for a pension based on service to the Confederacy.  UPDATE:  Benjamin Franklin McDaniel applied for a pension from the state of Florida.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

My Civil War Ancestors: Mason Covington Miller


Mason Covington Miller is simultaneously one of the most well-documented and one of the most mysterious of my ancestors.  He was born 12 March 1824 in Kershaw County, South Carolina.  He served as a private during the Mexican-American War, and his enlistment records give a physical description of him:  5' 8", with blue eyes, sandy hair, and a fair complexion.  He was a blacksmith, so he must have been strong, too.

During the Civil War he was in Company E of the 10th Georgia Infantry.  On 23 June 1864 he lost his right foot near Petersburg, VA.  After the war he received a pension from the state of Georgia for his sacrifice.  He died on 12 April 1903 and is buried in the Malachi Collins Cemetery

The controversy over Mason Covington Miller has nothing to do with his military service, though; instead it concerns his relationship with his first wife, Susan Ann Strickland (1828-1865), whom he married on 12 Jun 1853, as confirmed by Georgia marriage records.

The first question is, did Susan Ann Strickland have any children before her marriage to Mason Covington Miller?  The 1860 Census shows their household containing Bennet Miller (5), William Miller (3), Joseph Miller (2), Thomas Strickland (15), and John Strickland (11).  If the ages and dates are to be believed, Bennet Miller was born after the marriage.  However, the "consensus" of the Ancestry.com family trees shows that James Bennett Miller was their son in October, 1849, though it is not at all clear how this date might be documented.  There is a James B. Miller who appears in the 1870 Census as a 23-year-old living alone in Gordon, GA -- the other end of the state, and a member submitted a photo of "James Bennett Miller (1849-1929)"; but there is also a Bennet Miller, age 56, living in Cairo, GA in the 1910 Census.  It seems likely that James Bennett Miller was confused with Bennet Miller, who was the legitimate son of Mason C. and Susan Miller. 

What about the two Strickland boys?  A rather salacious post suggests that 
Grandmother Susan Ann Strickling was the mother of three children when Mason Covington Miller married her in June of 1853. Their names were Lusenda, born 1840, Thomas born 1845, and John 1859.
Note that (1) there is no one with a name like "Lusenda" in the 1860 Census and (2) 1859 is later than 1853.  The salacious post continues, 
It looks like Susan was taken advantage of as you can see her first child was born when she was only twelve years old. Her second one five years later and the third four years later. Susan was a Strickling, the 1850 Ga. Census shows Susan living with Neal Strickland note the differance the was these names are spelled, Susan Ann was not related to Neal Strickland, her father was Rubin Strickling.
That depends, of course, on Lucinda Strickland being the daughter of Susan, as Thomas and John are taken to be her sons.  The 1850 Georgia Census shows that Neal Strickling was 45, compared to the 22 year old Susan Strickling, with a string of other young people continuing down, apparently (the list continues on another page, but no adults are listed with the next group), to John Strickling (2) and Thomas Strickling (6).  We have already seen a John Strickland and a Thomas Strickland of about that age, and remember that in Georgia both "Strickland" and "Strickling" are likely to be pronounced "Strickluhn", so these are almost certainly the same name.  The only reasonable conclusion is that Neal Strickland / Strickling was the father of both Susan Strickland / Strickling and that Thomas and John were her younger brothers.  It is actually not that unusual for younger siblings to live in the household of their older sister if their mother has already died; in fact, my own mother and father took in my uncle for exactly this reason when they got married.

What about the claim that Susan Strickland is the daughter of Reuben Strickland?  Note the following passage:
REFERENCE: [JEFFERSON] REUBEN STRICKLAND FAMILY BIBLE EXTRACTS furnished by Mrs. Long with the above mentioned Family Group Records. First bible contains c1812 entries (i.e., from 2 pages) that list REUBEN STRICKLAND's children: a. NEILL, FLORAH, SUSANNA, SAVAGE, DAVID, LEUCREASY, and MARY. Also in this c1828 bible was a loose page that records the birth of a BULINDA STRICKLAND (b. Nov 18, 1820) [parents not identified], the birth of a grandson JOHN CONNER (b. April 7, 1828), son of WILLIS CONNER and his DAUGHTER SUSANNA; and a second SUSANNA STRICKLAND (b. July 2, 1822)[parents not identified]. 
Both of these two women named "Susanna Strickland" are older than "Susan Ann Strickland", but it is easy to see how they could be confused.  This is almost certainly what happened.  Also, note that although the will of Reuben Strickland makes reference to his married daughter Lucretia, it makes no reference to either a Susan or Susanna.  Susan was certainly still living at the time of Reuben Strickland's death in 1859, but perhaps his daughter Susanna was not.  The tone of the will does not incline me to believe he was merely getting in one last snub at a disappointing daughter.
In the name of God, Amen. I, REUBEN STRICKLAND, of the said State and County, being of advanced age and knowing that I must shortly depart from this world, deem it right and proper, both as respects myself and family, that I shall make disposition of the property which a kind providence has blessed me. I, therefore, make this my LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT, hereby revoking and annulling all others heretofore made by me. 
Item, First, I desire and will that my body be buried in a decent and Christianlike manner, suitable to my circumstances and condition. My soul, I trust shall return to rest with God who gave it as I hope for eternal salvation through the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 
Item, Second, I desire and direct that all my just debts be paid without delay by my executors hereinafter named.
Item, Third, I give and devise to my beloved wife, Clara Strickland, all the effects of my Estate, both real and personal, during her widowhood, or natural life, and at the termination of her widowhood, or natural life, the property, whatever it may be, both real and personal, I desire and bequeath that it may be equally divided between my four children, viz: Matthew M. Strickland, Thomas J. Strickland, Greenberry Strickland and Lucretia Strickland (Mrs. Josiah Lewis Perritt). 
Item, Fourth, I constitute my two sons, viz: Thomas J. Strickland and Greenberry Strickland [should be Matthew Strickland] my executors to this, my LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT this February 17, 1859. His Reuben (X) Strickland (Signed) Mark Signed, sealed and published by Reuben Strickland as his Last Will and Testament in the presence of us the subscribers who subscribed our names hereto in the presence of said Testator and of each other, February 17, 1859.
Sorry if you were hoping for a shocking scandal.  Mason Covington Miller had three more wives after Susan Ann Miller died in 1865, which may or may not be shocking, but there seems to be nothing amiss with Susan's part of the story.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

My Civil War Ancestors: Edward J. Thomas and Samuel J. Bradshaw

I've had pretty good luck tracing back most of my ancestors as far as the Civil War, but even at that recent date there are a few cases where the documentation is scant and the possibility for misidentification remains real.  Certainly I could not hope for surviving stories attached to them all.  You can imagine, then, how excited I was when, knowing I had an ancestor named "Edward J. Thomas" who lived in Georgia at the time of the Civil War, I found Memoirs of a Southerner by Edward J. Thomas.  

It's always best to find out how people in any place and time view themselves -- what they see as their strengths, what they see as their weaknesses, and what they consider too obvious to ever need to be mentioned explicitly.  That's true even when, as is the case in Thomas's book, the account is so infected with wishful thinking that it might remind us of a cartoon; we at least get to see how Thomas and people like him wished to think of themselves.  Bear in mind also that we also have cartoonish perceptions both of ourselves, and of those separated from us by time or distance.



Regardless, the Edward J. Thomas who was my great-great-great grandfather was born in 1806, whereas the author was born in 1840, so they are clearly not the same person.  What's more, the author's family owned several large plantations, whereas my relatives lived in a small household.

That household included a son Edward who was born in 1839, which is close enough for a possible match, given the records of that time.  However, records indicate that on 20 September 1862 he was deployed with the 5th Florida Infantry but had to be "left sick at a private house" near Richmond.  On 8 December 1862 he died in a Richmond hospital.  He did not survive to write a nostalgic retrospective of the antebellum South.

A similar fate befell Samuel J. Bradshaw.  He had been born in 1820 in South Carolina, and during the Second Seminole War he had come to Florida as part of Snodgrass' North Alabama Mounted Volunteers.  At the start of the War Between the States, he was still in Florida, and ended up enlisting as a private in Company B of the 8th Florida Infantry, although he was by then in middle age.  Whether his age contributed to his ultimate fate is not clear, nor is the particular ailment that felled him, but on 19 February 1863 he died, being subsequently buried in the University of Virginia Confederate Cemetery.  The records say he died, not that he was killed, so he also seems to have been a casualty of disease.  This was by no means uncommon; in most wars, disease has killed more men than combat.

Samuel J. Bradshaw left behind, among others, an 11 year old son named William Henry Bradshaw.  This son grew up to marry Louisa Thomas, the daughter of Edward J. Thomas and the sister of Edward Thomas; William and Louisa became my great-great grandparents.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

My Civil War Ancestors: The Pelt Family

Perhaps the saddest account I have yet come across in my family history from the Civil War era is that of the Pelt family.

In the 1860 census, a 45 year-old Jonathan Pelt (II) is shown in a household along with his wife Mary Barbara (née Taylor, aged 42), his children William (24), Obadiah (21), Robert (18), Jonathan III (13), Zachariah (10), Elizabeth (7), and Lucinda (5).  Also in the same household was Isaac Sims (15).  Elizabeth ended up marrying John Daniel Richards, the son of Daniel Thomas Richards, and became my great-great grandmother.

I'm not sure why Isaac Sims was a part of this household, as he does not appear to be a relative.  He is probably the Isaac Sims who was born around 1845 in Mississippi and came to live in Jackson County, Florida.  His son William Isaac (1876-1956) is listed in the 1910 census as white.  There is an application by Rhoda Sims to the War Department for a veteran's headstone for Isaac Sims, private in Company F (Daniel Richards was in Company G) of the 6th Florida Infantry, CSA (see Florida Soldiers:  CSA 6th, 7th Florida Infantry, 1st Florida Cavalry, page 164), indicating he died on 13 Feb. 1930 and was buried in the Sims Cemetery near Mariana.

I can find no record of Jonathan Pelt having served in the military at any time, which is actually rather surprising if he "was a noted blacksmith", something any cavalry would need.  William Pelt and two of his brothers were in the same infantry company as Isaac Sims.  William survived until 15 Nov. 1871.  The rest of the news is not so good.

In November of 1863, disaster struck.  The Company Muster Roll for Nov. / Dec. 1863 shows Obedeah/Obadiah Pelt to be absent by reason of "capture by the enemy Nov. 25, 1863"; the Jan. / Feb. 1864 Company Muster Roll shows his absence due to being "Missing in action at Missionary Ridge Nov. 25 / 63"; confirmation that he was in fact dead must have come shortly after that.  The death of Robert must have been confirmed even sooner.  A register shows him to have been killed on Nov. 25, 1863, with "Where and of what cause" marked simply "Bad Missionary Ridge".  News of their deaths must have come as a shock to the whole family -- a dozen years later, my great-grandfather, John Obed Richards, would be named after him -- and it may have contributed to Peter's fateful decision to desert in February of 1864.

Unlike his brothers, Peter had enlisted in the 2nd Florida Confederate Cavalry (Company G; John Richards was in Company A).  Desertion is, by the common consent of all armies, about the worst thing you can do, but becoming a turncoat and taking up arms for the other side is among the few things that are even worse.  This is what Peter did, joining the 2nd Florida US Cavalry. This really became a problem for him when he was part of a Union force that attempted to occupy Tallahassee, precipitating the Battle of Natural Bridge.  

Warning:  Inconsistent Sound Volume!

Peter was among those assigned to remain in Newport to cover the Union retreat.  After a hard day's fighting, he and three other Union soldiers collapsed exhausted into a nearby building which they somehow assumed to be secure.  Later that night, a larger group of Confederate troops made the same decision.  The morning light revealed the situation, and the outnumbered Union soldiers were quickly captured.  Peter, along with Cpl. Asa Fowler, were recognized as deserters and turncoats, and after a brief trial, were executed by firing squad, stripped naked, and dumped into an unmarked grave.

The words of Confederate surgeon Dr. Charles Hentz do a good job of capturing the tragedy:
...They were halted close to me, as a hollow square for the execution was formed; some bandages, pinned around their eyes, were taken from my haversack; how dreadfully did I commiserate their awful condition. Pelt, whom I had known as a little boy...,was trembling in every fiber; his face was the hue of ashes - his lips quivering compulsively in prayer, his eyes closed and bandaged.
All this seems to indicate that Peter, who was only 19, was essentially just a scared kid, and it implies that his desertion was motivated by fear rather than principle.  Presumably he fell in with Union forces not so much because he supported them, but because as a deserter he had nowhere else to turn.  It is hard not to pity him.

I know that if I had been among the Confederate troops who captured him that day, I would have willingly joined the firing squad.  Peter had not exactly been blowing kisses at his former friends, neighbors, and comrades in arms the previous day.  I would have shot him, but I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.  The war was over just two months later.  As a deserter and a turncoat, Peter would never really have been able to go home again, but he could have moved out west and started over.  At least that would have spared his family some additional grief.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

My Civil War Ancestors: John George Richards and Daniel Thomas Richards


The recent hubbub over the Confederate flag has spurred me to investigate my Confederate ancestors, and from that I have moved on to a more general inquiry into my genealogy.  This is still ongoing, incomplete in places and probably inaccurate in a few places I'll mention when they come up.  Two Confederate soldiers on my father's side are pretty well documented, though:  John George Richards and Daniel Thomas Richards. That makes them a good place to start a new series of posts.
Daniel Thomas Richards (1825-1879), survivor of an Indian attack on Fort Richards/Fort Place, and son of Rev. John G. Richards of Wewahitchka, built Moss Hill Methodist Church in Vernon (1857), Chipola Primitive Baptist (1873), and organized the Chipola Methodist Church (1874) in his log home. In 1876 Daniel and his sons built a log church near this site.  -- Historical Marker at the Site of Altha Methodist Church, Florida
On this site are the remains of early area settlers, the Richards family. As a prominent Virginia Colonial family, George Richards (1727-1818) was with Washington at Braddock’s Defeat (1755), and with his sons in the Revolutionary War (1776). The family served in the War of 1812, Florida Indian Wars and Richards Company of Friendly Indians, settling Ocheese Bluffs, Wewahitchka, and Altha. As one of Florida’s first pioneer families and Interpreters for Andrew Jackson for Florida treaties, they built Fort Richards where George’s son Thomas C. Richards (1774-1838) was killed during an Indian attack. Thomas’s son, Rev. John G. Richards (1797-1876), built the church and named Wewahitchka, and served as Calhoun County Elections Inspector (1843), Clerk of the Court (1851) and in Company A 2nd Florida Calvary. His son, Daniel Thomas Richards (1825-1879), buried at this site, survived the fort’s attack and built Moss Hill, Chipola Baptist and Altha Methodist Churches. He was a Civil War Veteran (6th Florida Infantry Regiment Company G wounded at Chickamauga, Georgia in 1863) and Washington County Clerk of Court.  -- Historical Marker at the Site of Richards Cemetery, Florida
... Daniel Thomas Richards is reported to be the first white child born in Calhoun County.  Six weeks later he was left motherless when Eliza Porter Richards died of pneumonia.  Eliza was only 15 years old.  Daniel T. Richards was living in the fort at Wewahitchka, FL with his grandparents Indians attacked his Uncle James Richards home in 1838. His grandfather and sons built the first Methodist Church in Wewahitchka. It was a one room church of hewn logs. After his marriage, Daniel T. Richards and his wife continued to live in the fort. They moved to Washington Co. near Econfina Creek and made it their home for many years.  Later they moved to Jackson County, south of Marianna and then to Calhoun County. The Civil War forced Daniel T. to leave his wife and young children with no one to take care of his farm. He was mustered into the 6th Florida Infantry, Company G on March 11, 1862.  While he was gone, his wife welcomed other young women left with no means of support into their home. These women and children remained together for the duration of the war.  --  State Archives of Florida Online Catalog, "Richards Family photographs, 1865-1908."
At the time of the 1850 census, Daniel Thomas Richards was living in a small household consisting of himself, his wife Ann (née Nelson), their infant son John Daniel, and his wife's brother Rambling Nelson, who was 20 years old but was already a veteran of the Mexican-American War.  (If "Rambling" was a nickname, it seems to have been one he went by his whole life, including his military pension application.)  By the 1860 census Rambling had moved out and three additional children had been added.

The 1830 census shows the household of John Richards consisting of himself, one "free white woman" (his wife, the former Eliza Porter, who would have been about 20) and one child (Daniel Thomas, who would have been about 5).  The family had grown by 1840, and even more by 1850.

It appears that at no time did either John Richards or Daniel Richards own slaves.  (The two previous generations had owned slaves, especially George Richards, Sr., but I will go into detail about them in a later post.)  The Methodist Church, of which John Richards was a minister, was at least "in principle" opposed to slavery, with John Wesley having written against it, so perhaps this was a religious decision, or perhaps it was a part of a pattern of the growing distaste for slavery (few if any of my other Confederate ancestors were slaveholders), or perhaps Daniel and John Richards were simply land-poor -- it is not clear which.  Regardless, they had no direct incentive to support slavery, but they appear to have genuinely supported the Confederate cause.  This is not a surprise, because suggesting that the Confederate cause was only about slavery is as absurd as suggesting that Pat Tillman enlisted to fight for cheap oil.

They did not enlist until there was a general conscription in effect, but at that time they were 37 and 63 years old, respectively, which is beyond the ideal age for a private.  Daniel Richards obviously saw action, though, since he was wounded at Chickamauga. As for John Richards, my guess is that he was either mustered out (or into a kind of home guard), as too old to be useful at the front, or was assigned some sort of clerical duty, for which his previous public service indicates he was well-suited.  The other possibilities are that he served as a chaplain, but he seems to have been a private, not an officer, and he does not appear on lists of chaplains; or he might have just been exceptionally blessed, since he did survive the war.  (Update 7 Sep 2015: A John Richards appears as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Florida 4th Infantry Co. B, having mustered in on 30 Apr. 1861 and discharged in August 1864 for disability.  I am unsure whether this could be the same John Richards, but it is plausible, given his position in the community and his experience as a 1st Lieutenant in Richards' Company of Friendly Indians.  There are other surviving documents on Fold3.com that probably through additional light on the career of "John Richards", but the handwritten notes are too indistinct for me to read them.)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Path to CItizenship for Superman?

After all, he was not born in America, and he did not pass through all the proper immigration channels when he arrived.  He is, in fact, an illegal alien.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Most Holy Trinity and Self-Similar Fractals


One morning a few days ago, while I was still half awake, I found myself imagining a discussion of the Most Holy Trinity with a (rather rude) skeptic, and I thought of an analogy in terms of self-similar fractals, in particular the Mandelbrot set.

Notice that you see the same pattern at the very beginning (at 0:08) and three more times in this video (at 1:15, 2:29, and 5:03).  Note there  are other repetitions:  we zoom past the same pattern repeated many times before diving into it at 0:46, only to see yet more copies of it on the inside immediately thereafter.  At 1:27, we are once again zooming past more copies of this same pattern.  There is also a 4-armed pattern that we see several times, at 1:01, 1:38, 2:52, 3:11, and 3:48.  Each of these patterns is contained within the others and also contains the others, so whenever you see one, you know the others are also there.

My analogy is that these patterns are "like" the Divine Persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost); the patterns are never really separated from each other, as the Divine Persons are not separated from each other.  Yet these patterns together form a unity, as there is only one God in three Persons.  Also, presumably the first pattern would correspond by analogy to God the Father, because although the other two Persons are co-eternal with Him, the Father is in some sense their origin, as He is neither begotten nor proceeding.

There are two other nice things about this analogy.  Firstly, the Mandelbrot set is beautiful, which is one of the reasons videos like the one above are produced.  Likewise, God is beautiful, or if you prefer, God is the ultimate perfection of beauty.  Secondly, although the Mandelbrot set seems infinitely complicated in such a video, in fact it is actually quite simple in its definition.  This might make philosophical statements about the simplicity of God a bit easier to accept.



Please understand that this is only an analogy, and all analogies have their limitations.  A much more careful explanation of what the Church actually teaches about the Trinity can be found in the Athanasian Creed.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Red Storm Rising


A week ago I finished re-reading Red Storm Rising.  I first read it during the summer of 1989.  The book is now 28 years old, so it should not really be necessary for me to say this, but SPOILER ALERT.

The book holds up better over time than I had expected.  A few things are pretty obvious from the beginning, since this is (after all) a popular American novel from the Cold War.
  1. The USA wins.  Actually, it's more of a combined NATO "win", and "winning" mostly means "surviving".  That said, the Soviet Union took much more serious casualties and is economically and politically in tatters at the end of the book, so in a real (though not ultimate) sense they "lose".
  2. NATO are the good guys.  One of the book's heroes does something that is probably technically illegal, but it is not (under the circumstances) immoral.  All of the real crimes and unquestionably immoral acts are committed by not just Warsaw Pact personnel, but in fact Soviets.
However, 
  1. The conclusion of the war is not really a decisive "win", and the course of the war is very much an evenly-matched back-and-forth.  Part of this can be attributed to the need to tell a compelling tale, and part of it to contemporary estimates.  It is still refreshing, though, as compared to revisionist estimates after Desert Storm that assume that the Red Army is just the Iraqi Army scaled up and that a conventional World War III would have been a cakewalk for the USA, that the book assumes that the country that has produced so many world chess grand champions would not behave as complete strategic and tactical dunces.
  2. A number of "main characters" are introduced who are Soviets.  These are characters that still (for the most part) know right from wrong and generally choose to do what is right, and the reader is correctly expected to sympathize with them.  As with the NATO characters, these are ultimately survivors of the war.

Of course with hindsight it is clear that Clancy got many of the little details wrong, such as the appearance and capabilities of the (still classified at the time) F-117.  Much more striking, and in some cases more troubling, are the big things he got wrong, things that cast doubt on the USA and NATO actually being the "good guys".  Here are some of those things.
  • In Red Storm Rising, neither the USA nor its NATO allies are ever presented as torturing prisoners.  They do make use of psychological tricks, and they do make use of drugs (in one case, alcohol which the prisoners willingly "self-administer", and in two cases they exploit powerful pain-killers -- though in both cases, the prisoner had sustained injuries that required medical attention, which was the primary reason the pain-killers had been administered.

    Sadly, in the real world the USA has openly embraced "enhanced interrogation".  All manner of mental gymnastics are used in an attempt to justify this practice -- well, at least when the subject of the "enhanced interrogation" is not an American.  If he were an American, such actions would be torture, of course, just like when we capture someone, he is a "detainee" (not a prisoner of war, which would give him some rights, and not an accused criminal, which would give him some rights, but an Untermensch, with all that that word implies), but when our foes capture a uniformed American serviceman, he is always a "hostage".  These, at any rate, are the cases we know about and that are publicly defended; but given the culture and practice of secrecy that has come to surround the detention and interrogation of enemies of the state, it is doubtful we will ever know all that has been done.

    The situation is not improved by the knowledge of what happened at Abu Ghraib.  Supposedly, only low-ranking minions were involved in this, and supposedly, this did not represent the will of the US government.  As our British cousins would say, bollocks.  Senior members of the Bush administration (the same people who defended waterboarding) had given speeches (to rounds of applause) about how it was time for the US to "get tough" or "remove the kid gloves".  Only a moron could fail to see that this created an environment that encouraged such abuses, however much they later claimed never to have intended them.  There is, to be sure, a well-established practice of people in authority carefully avoiding all specifics, so that if there is negative fallout, they can claim that they did not authorize or even know about misdeeds carried out by their underlings.  The proverbial "wink and a nod" has been around for a long time!  Even Hitler had minimal contact with the details of the "Final Solution" -- but no one ever doubted that the Holocaust was a direct expression of the Führer's will.
  • The American intelligence community is beginning to resemble too closely institutions like the KGB and the East German Stasi.  I know too many silly people who, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, were instantly willing to sell their birthright for a mess of pottage.  Actually, it was worse than that:  a mess of pottage is at least a concrete good, but all they got was an unsubstantiated, and highly questionable, claim that in some way they had a little more physical safety.  For that they were willing to spit on the grave of every serviceman who died in the hope that we would be free of secret police.

  • We used to hear that the Soviet Union was a nation of godless atheists, but now the US has become a nation of godless nones.  Or, if you prefer, the Soviet Union was full of people who practiced no religion and called themselves atheists, but now the USA is full of people who practice no religion and call themselves Christians.

    Yes, the trend towards a more godless nation is reflected in polls of religious affiliation, but it is reflected even more in the atmosphere of everyday life.  

    Let me first get out of the way two comparatively minor examples: the coarsening of the language and the ubiquity of tattoos.  By "coarsening of the language", I do not simply mean the use of crude and vulgar words; I also mean the glib discussion of crude and vulgar subjects with no consideration of whether they are appropriate for the time, place, and audience.  As for tattoos, I suspect that when they are used excessively it indicates a non-Christian attitude in which the body is regarded as clothing for the soul rather than as an integral part of the person.

    Perhaps an extreme example of what I mean happened in 2010, when a stalker posted to the web nude videos which he had surreptitiously taken of ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews.  This was discussed at length by a number of male ESPN employees on ESPN's national radio programs; many of these employees casually mentioned having seen the video.  (a)  Of course, these men should not have viewed the video.  (b)  If they did view it, they should have at least realized it was something they should feel ashamed for having done.  (c)  Even if they viewed the video and felt no shame, they should have realized that by flippantly discussing on air having viewed the video, they were creating a very uncomfortable, even hostile work environment for Ms. Andrews.  The really amazing thing was that there was absolutely no sense of shame, nor even any sense that there was a need to rationalize (probably on the basis of "we are journalists") what they had done.  There was no objection from anyone in the studio, and, at least during the time it took me to drive in to work, no objection from any guest or caller.

    (Two years later, Erin Andrews switched to Fox Sports.  Perhaps this was a contributing reason, though Fox Sports radio personalities seem to be cut from the same cloth as their ESPN counterparts.)

    I'll give just one more example of the change I am describing in the overall approach to life.  A few years ago, I was the principal investigator in a summer research program for college undergraduates.  Part of the program was an ethics component, which we satisfied by reading and discussing Fundamentals of Ethics for Scientists and Engineers by Edmund G. Seebauer (which I like because of its Aristotelian approach).  We ran into trouble at the very beginning:  at the point where it must be mentioned that we take for granted that there is something for ethics to study.  That is, ethics is the study of what ought to be done by a particular person in a particular set of circumstances, not a study of what people actually do (which is arguably history), nor what they say they should do (which is arguably cultural anthropology), nor how people feel about what they and others do (which is arguably psychology).  One student would have none of that; this student had a family member who was a philosophy grad student, and so knew that ethics is only what people actually do.  Most of the other students were noncommittal.  They have all grown up in a system that now teaches children that right and wrong are not concrete realities.  Of course their indoctrination is not consistent; I think they would all agree that James Earl Ray really ought not to have assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr., even though that is what he actually did, even though subcultures like the Ku Klux Klan would have said he did what he ought to have done, and even if the assassination made James Earl Ray feel better in some way.  They would "feel" that the assassination was in some way wrong, but they have been taught that there is no objective reality behind this feeling.  The Abolition of Man is nearly complete.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Controversy over the Confederate Flag

I was thinking about blogging on recent developments, but it turns out that I made all of the important points three years ago, so I will just provide a link to that post.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Chinese Proverb

Cheap shrimp cocktail and beef stew went into business together.
It was a disaster.  Everyone died.
-- Quoted by a character in a dream

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

"Conservative Catholic" Bloggers and the Pope

Before I even begin, let me explain that the reason I do not here take liberals to task is because, even before I was old enough to know what the words "liberal" and "conservative" mean, the liberal movement had wedded itself to unquestionable evils, such as abortion, and for that marriage at least they actually do believe in permanence.
I had expected more from people who call themselves not only conservatives, but conservative Catholics.  These are people with whom I would expect to be in agreement, but as several recent posts have revealed, the frequency with which that expectation is frustrated the source of a great deal of irritation to me.

The most recent example comes from the hubbub surrounding an encyclical which the Pope has not yet even released [a draft has been leaked as I write this, but even that was not available when I started this post], but which is said to deal with our responsibility to look after the environment.  That, in itself, is not very new; it was Adam's first job, as described in Genesis 2:15.  

Unfortunately, most of these "conservative Catholics" seem to be infested by a form of Gnosticism (as are so many in today's society).  Gnostics thought that matter, including the body, was at best of no importance, and at worst somewhat evil, as it functions (in their opinions) as a prison for spirits.  Some Gnostics concluded that even marital intercourse is wrong, since it leads to more spirits being trapped in matter (i.e., children); others concluded that because the body is of no importance, no sex act performed by the body could possibly be sinful.

Something of these attitudes was revived during the Enlightenment, particularly in the dualism of René Descartes.  A hint of the confusion caused by this can be found in modern science fiction, which on the one hand will happily deny that there is such a thing as a soul -- only the body is important -- and then in the next episode the mind or "essence" of a character is uploaded into a computer or downloaded into another body -- the body is of no importance.  

The aroma of Gnosticism is also particularly to be found in any modern discussion of nature and/or nonhuman animals and plants.  Like a drunk wandering home late at night, most people end up in either the ditch on the right or the ditch on the left.  The ditch on the left is the idea that animals and plants are of equal if not superior worth compared to a human.  These are the people who will protest in favor of abortion but against the cutting down of a 300 year old oak.  The ditch on the right is that the only value nature has is as raw material for industry.  Ironically, both sides end up enthroning Industry as a god, the only difference being whether they regard it as a good god or an evil god.  (This, by the way, is one key difference between modern pagans and ancient pagans: ancient pagans new that nature could kill them if they weren't careful, whereas modern pagans are afraid that if we are not careful, we might destroy nature.)

A particularly common "defense" given in anticipation of this encyclical is that the Pope is only infallible when talking about Faith and Morals (and even then only under specific circumstances), with the very strong implication that anything else can simply be ignored.  The error is in the implication.  

Statements may be classified by their credibility.
  1. Infallible statements are, of course, the gold standard.  The problem is that whenever an infallible statement is explained, or paraphrased, or applied, the infallibility does not transfer to the explanation, paraphrase, or application.  Since explanations and applications are necessary for any practical use to be made of these statements, infallible statements are not enough.
  2. Some statements are not infallible, but they are thoroughly trustworthy.  The theory of quantum mechanics is a particularly strong example, because (a) it is something no sane person would really want  to believe, so it has been thoroughly tested in hopes of debunking it, and (b) none of these experiments have shown quantum mechanics to be wrong.  Honestly, though, almost all "facts" fall into this category:  "The earth is round," "China is a real place," "Rats do not spontaneously generate from old rags," "Millions of Jews were murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust," etc.
  3. Some statements may not be as certain as those discussed above, but they are still worthy of the benefit of the doubt.  Advice from your doctor falls into this category; you can get a second opinion, but you should not simply disregard what your doctor says.  Likewise with weather forecasts: they are often wrong, but it is foolish to ignore the forecast of a major storm.
  4. Some statements have neutral credibility.  If I say, "Baylor will win the Big 12 football championship in 2015," a proper response would be, "Maybe; we'll see."
  5. Finally, there are statements which should be met with varying degrees of suspicion, but which should be regarded as either most likely to be false or to be so cunningly deceptive that the only safe thing is to ignore them entirely.

It may well be true -- it is almost certainly true -- that the bulk of what is in the upcoming encyclical does not belong in the first category, infallible statements.  That is true of any encyclical, really.  When St. John Paul II said in Evangelium Vitae, "Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform," this evaluation of the prison system is not infallible.  When Popes have written encyclicals condemning Socialism, the moral principles in them may be infallible, but the application to self-described Socialist leaders, parties, or nations is not infallible.  However, a Catholic aiming to cultivate the proper virtue of docility will still regard them as trustworthy, or at least worthy of the benefit of the doubt.

The problem, of course, comes when the statements of the Pope clash with a preexisting religious commitment:   the devotion to the god Industry mentioned above.  That's it.  They are afraid that the Pope will find the projections of anthropogenic climate change credible, and that will be bad for "bidness", be bad for their side in politics, and give aid and comfort to their political rivals.

To the best of my knowledge, neither the bloggers nor the people supplying comments on the blogs are climatologists, or even have the necessary background to make a professional evaluation of the science.  Without such a background, and when dealing with a process expected to take a century or more to unfold, they really have no excuse for looking for an excuse to disregard the Pope before he has even published his encyclical.  (Sure, there are a handful of climatologists who think absolutely nothing will happen.  There are also a handful of biologists who think Bigfoot is probably a real, bipedal, hairy ape.  There were quite a few biologists who were willing to argue that smoking cigarettes is totally healthy.  If you are willing to cherry pick your experts, you can always find at least one expert who will back up any idea.)

As for what I think about anthropogenic climate change, that's a topic for a later post.  For here, it is sufficient to say that Catholics should not dismiss the Pope out of hand.