Thursday, December 29, 2016

"The U.S. has only one president at a time."

The U.S. has only one president at a time, responsible for setting foreign policy. To avoid confusion during the transition, incoming presidents usually avoid those topics, but not Mr. Trump. Twitter has given him a 24-hour megaphone, reports CBS News correspondent Jan Crawford.
That is not a line from a commentary, but from what is meant to be a news story -- specifically, "John Kerry on Donald Trump: U.S. allies won't be 'intimidated by a tweet'" at  Does CBS really consider it news that "[t]he U.S. has only one president at a time..."?  Since that's not a new development (by almost 230 years), and since CBS presumably knows that, it's hard to overstate the contempt they are showing for their viewers (or readers) with that statement.  And what's with quoting the gal who sits in the cubicle next to yours as a source?  Is CBS News in the business of reporting the news, or of creating it?

Maybe the public would be less likely to turn to "fake news" if the establishment journalism at least made an effort at professionalism.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Treating People Like Museum Exhibits

Well, at least it is now generally agreed that it was wrong to display the stuffed body of an African Bushman.  That was not quite as bad as making lampshades out of human skin, but it was on the same spectrum, showing a massive lack of respect for the deceased person.  Why it is not also felt to be disrespectful to display the bodies of Egyptian pharaohs is not at all clear.

It is not only the dead who can be used as "edutainment" by first-world countries.  The attempt to maintain the isolation of "uncontacted" communities is likewise dehumanizing, treating the members of these communities as though they were monkeys in a zoo.  However much we may cherish the animals in a nature preserve, we would rightly bristle at the thought of anyone putting us, or anyone we consider to be genuinely our equals, in a preserve.  

It's one thing to protect indigenous peoples from being exploited or to allow them to continue in their traditional way of life, if that is their choice; it is quite another to withhold from them the information necessary to make that choice for themselves.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Donald Song

The Democrats are not the only ones who have made fools of themselves this past election cycle.  One thing many people have noticed is how prominent members of the Religious Right have made excuses for Donald Trump for behavior they would have rightly condemned from someone on the left.  They have, in fact, made an idol out of politics. With apologies to VeggieTales, they have sung the Donald Song:

The Donald, the Donald, whoa I love the Donald.
I don’t love my mom or my dad, just the Donald.
The Donald, the Donald, yeah I love the Donald.
I gave everything that I had for the Donald.
I don’t want no background when it’s time to vote –
His past indiscretions are nothing of note.
I don’t need the details of his policy.
He feels my frustrations, he’ll look out for me.
I won’t go to church and I won’t go to school,
That stuff is for sissies, but Donald is cool!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Order 66

Last night I was watching this video about "Why Yoda Should Have Prevented Order 66" in the Star Wars universe, and it occurred to me I had seen this same shock, stunned outrage, and denial not long ago:  I saw it on election night.  It was all there --  a group of people who considered themselves the elite heroes, having doomed themselves through over-confidence and having overlooked obvious warning signs, felt betrayed by people they considered scarcely human, their only function being to support the elites.  It must all be the result of a nefarious plan -- in a galaxy far, far away it was the Sith, but closer to home, Russia makes a convenient (however implausible) scapegoat.

Such melodrama is comical, in no small part because it is out of place.  Yes, Hillary Clinton's political career is as dead as Ki-Adi-Mundi, but no actual people died in this election.  The Democrats will be back, none the wiser for their defeat.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

How Many Lights Are There?

Star Trek:  The Next Generation was certainly a mixed bag, but eventually the writers realized that having a great actor in Patrick Stewart opened up some possibilities that would not have worked with a lesser actor.  The story line leading to this scene is a great example of those enhanced possibilities.

In this scene, a Cardassian interrogator, Gul Madred, offers Picard what appears to be a final choice:  Picard can remain stubborn, in which case the Madred very plausibly assures him he will suffer continuing torment for the rest of his life, or Picard can give in to a "small" demand and reject the reality he sees in front of him, in which case the interrogator gives Picard a much less believable assurance of a life of cultured ease.  What is really happening is something that is, I understand, really done in ordeals of this type:  Gul Madred is trying to break Picard's will and spirit.  Because Picard has been subjected to prolonged physical and psychological abuse, he nearly succumbs -- but of course, being as he is one of the main heroes of the series, Picard ultimately bests his tormentor.

One thing that particularly strikes me this year is how much our election process is similar to Picard's test.
  1. Both involve similar combinations of plausible threats and implausible promises.
  2. Both involve not so much deception as the willful rejection of reality.
  3. Both are designed to break those to whom they are applied.
These last two points are the interesting ones.

The political left in America has been about the willful rejection of reality for quite some time.  Perhaps the earliest example, and one of the most morally significant examples, is abortion.  Maybe -- just maybe -- a person can have real doubt that an unborn child at two months of development is, in fact, a child, but an honest person cannot really be in doubt as the months go on.  That, ultimately, is why those who joined the Democratic Party for more traditional reasons -- support for labor unions, for example, or later an opposition to Jim Crow laws -- have been forced not only to back abortion, but to protect abortion at any time up to and including the moment when the child is actually being born.  It is necessary to be sure that they are broken.

There are other examples.  It's hard to forget the image of Jesse Jackson, who once perhaps was serious about being a Christian minister, counseling Bill Clinton that oral sex with Monica Lewinsky wasn't really adultery.  Another blatant example is the more recent insistence that first Democratic politicians and then the public as a whole accept that two men (or two women) can marry each other, and that there is no sense in which what has been traditionally been understood to be marriage is in any way more real.  Very likely the leadership of the left (like many others, to be fair) are moral nihilists who don't believe there is any reality to any marriage, just fictions people tell themselves and each other in order to achieve the desired effects -- but that does not suffice to explain their insistence that everyone else accept the "new reality".  Making sure that they are broken, on the other hand, does explain the insistence.

By no means is this limited to the left, though; the right has its own version, most prominently around Donald Trump.  Consider, for example, the leaders of the "religious right" who have endorsed and supported Trump while downplaying Trump's moral failings.  Yes, this has destroyed their claim to moral authority in a way that has not escaped public notice and seems certain to do lasting damage to the "religious right" as an institution, but it has done more than that; it has broken them.  On the other hand, maybe this will not do lasting damage to their institution (though it should); there seems to have been little consequence to them for their support of Newt Gingrich, who has many of the same flaws.  Perhaps it will make a difference that Trump has actually bragged about how broken his supporters are.

One way or the other, it bodes ill that this year's whole election process has been corrupted to break down the American public mentally and spiritually.

Understand that Gul Madred did not really believe there were three lights.  That was not the point.  The next day, perhaps the answer he would have demanded would have been five lights, and after that two light.  The point was that Picard was to allow him to define reality.  Only once Picard was fully trained to accept fully and unquestioningly Madred's definitions of reality would Madred begin to make full use of his power.

Toward what end are we being trained in 2016?

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Most Important Election of My Lifetime

Every four years, the same tired claim is made:  "This is the most important election of our lifetimes -- maybe even the most important in American history!"  It is a very annoying claim -- firstly because it is obviously not the case that each election is more important than all the elections that came before it, and secondly because it should be enough that this is the only election we can affect now.

It does make me wonder, though:  What actually is the most important election in which I have been able to vote? 

It seems reasonable confine the question to presidential elections, and to base my answer on several considerations.
  • Was there a particularly important issue at stake?
  • Was there a difference between the stances of the two candidates?
    • Was the difference real, or merely rhetorical?
    • Was the issue really a priority to the two candidates, or was it at the bottom of their wish lists?
  •  Did the issue regard something that a president can actually have an important effect?
Let's go through a list of likely distinctions, then.  Abortion is a hugely important issue, but it is (a) largely outside a president's control, and (b) clearly not an actual priority of Republican presidents, however much they might hype it to certain crowds during fund-raisers and campaign rallies.  The whole "gay marriage" / transgender bathrooms / whatever spectrum of issues is likewise important, but, again, (a) it seems to be driven by cultural forces largely beyond a president's control, and (b) these issues have not featured prominently in the campaigns of Republicans this fall, in spite of the rapid and dramatic changes that have recently taken place.  How about the response to the terrorist attacks of September 11?  I think a US war in Afghanistan was an inevitable response from any president.  Also, although I could not have actually voted for Gore due to his positions on issues like abortion and family issues, he probably would not have invaded Iraq, and the Republican-controlled congress would probably not have given him the exaggerated powers that they granted George W. Bush.  So far, none of these elections are looking that important.

My best guess, then, is that the most important election I have voted in was my very first election, the one that elected George H. W. Bush.  The issue was the US behavior during the collapse of first East Germany, then the Warsaw Pact, then the Soviet Union itself -- and since nuclear war was a very real possibility, the stakes were amazingly high and the role of the president was absolutely essential.  I cannot be sure how Dukakis might have been different, but Bush had much more international experience, and the Soviet Union might have been more reluctant to react by lashing out with Ronald Reagan's protégé in office.  One way or another, that was a dangerous stretch of history, and it is something of a miracle that we got through it with no more violence than what happened in Romania, so I would not be willing to change anything about it.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


The expression "If you can dream it, you can do it!" is wrongly attributed to Walt Disney, but it does encapsulate a very real part of his outlook, and of the American outlook more generally, and it must be admitted that when used in moderation, this perspective can have wonderful results. The proper understanding of this expression is as a hyperbole intended to free us from the shackles of stupefying habit.  It becomes a serious problem, though, when it is taken as a simple, unvarnished truth.

For one thing, it is clearly impossible for it to be true for everyone, because one person's dreams often contradict another person's dreams.  Jeb Bush dreamed of winning the US presidency in this year's election, for example, but he could not do it because enough other people had different dreams.  Likewise, some things are simply physically impossible.  The character Superman is after all the embodiment of the dreams of his creators and developers, but most of what he does is absolute nonsense.

It is a good thing that "If you can dream it, you can do it!" is false.   For one thing, it is good that our dreams are not limited to the things we can do -- "a man's reach should exceed his grasp."  Much more importantly, though, anyone who is able to look at himself at least somewhat honestly knows that absolute power would corrupt him absolutely, destroying his character, making him an enormous threat to others, and ultimately making him miserable.  This has been treated many times in fiction -- notably in the Star Trek episodes "Where No Man Has Gone Before" and "Charlie X", the Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life", and even the Ring of Sauron in Lord of the Rings.

Although we are not actually omnipotent -- and that is a good thing -- there remain two possibilities for those who cling to the idea that "if you can dream it, you can do it":  we can either prefer to live in a world of "pure imagination" in preference to reality, or we can reject the existence reality altogether and claim that we are compelled to construct our own "realities".  The latter approach has grown in popularity and seems to be the unquestioned metaphysical position of the millennial generation.  It is completely ubiquitous in society today; it is even the current metaphysical framework of our legal system, as exemplified by the "sweet mystery of life" passage of Planned Parenthood vs. Casey.  America seems destined to be destroyed not by the bang of Armageddon, but by the whimper of Weirdmageddon.

This situation is not unique -- after all, it is just another version of the Serpent's ancient lie that "you will be like God", in this case creating our own "realities" -- but it is exceptional.  In another age, the fact that reality is better than unreality was considered so obvious and important that it motivated the center of the Ontological Argument for the existence of God.  (The fact that even most believers in God think the Ontological Argument is flawed does not negate the importance earlier generations placed on reality.)

Astonishingly, a good commentary on all this, and the origin of the term "Weirdmageddon", can be found in the cartoon Gravity Falls, which was produced by none other than the Walt Disney corporation.  Before I go any further, there are spoilers ahead.

The main antagonist of the cartoon is a strange "demon" named Bill Cypher.  The first time in the show's narrative he is summoned, he exits saying, "Remember:  Reality is an illusion -- the universe is a hologram -- buy gold -- bye!"  His whole motivation is a rejection of reality in favor of what he considers fun.  If that means that "[he's] got some children [he] need[s] to make into corpses", well, so be it.  He really is the perfect representation of the Zeitgeist.  The fact that "he" appears on the one dollar bill makes the correspondence all the better.

In order to defeat him, the main characters had to give up their pride and selfishness, which after all are the origins of this war against reality.  Even more dramatically, Mable Pines is captured by Bill Cypher and placed in "a world of pure imagination" apparently suited to her tastes -- though in reality, it is made up of disgusting and malevolent worms that remain disguised until the illusions they create are confronted.  Her twin brother Dipper goes in after her to find his own hopes falsely offered to him, including the opportunity for romance with Wendy, the girl with whom he is infatuated.  He sees through the deception and rejects it.  In the end, both twins have to explicitly accept that the real world, with all its flaws, is better than an "ideal" world of imagination and illusion.  

Gravity Falls would have been an entertaining program even without its relevance, but it turns out to be astonishingly on target, much more so than Walt Disney Inc. can have really wanted or realized, though I have to suspect it was somewhere in the back of the mind of Alex Hirsch, its creator.  I have to credit him with deliberate irony in having Disney pay for and distribute a cartoon that celebrates reality over the lies that the corporation cherishes so much.

Monday, September 19, 2016

A.D./B.C. or C.E./B.C.E.?

It is becoming increasingly common to find dates that have for centuries been described as, for example, "A.D. 1776" or "44 B.C." are now being described as "1776 C.E." or "44 B.C.E.".  Does this new usage demonstrate a greater sensitivity and a more careful, academic approach?

No.  To be perfectly blunt, it is neither more nor less than an anti-Christian bias self-righteously masquerading as intellectualism. 

That is a serious charge, but the facts back it up.  Advocates of the new terminology say that the older terminology is offensive to those who do not accept Christianity.  However,
  1. These same people make no attempt to rename the months of the year, many of which are named after Greco-Roman gods.  How is it that Christianity gives toxic offense, but not Greco-Roman paganism?
  2. The same is true of days of the week:  in English, they are named after Germanic gods.  Again, the people who find Christ offensive seem to think Thor and Wotan are perfectly acceptable. 
  3. Pay close attention to how foreign words and names are pronounced by the "C.E." crowd.  You will find that they go to great lengths to give the native pronunciations, or at least what they think are the native pronunciations.  They often over-correct for Anglicization, but they want it to be obvious that they are so solicitous for cultural sensitivity towards speakers of Arabic, or Hindi, or Japanese, or Mandarin Chinese.  They would not dream of behaving like a European colonialist and appropriating someone else's cultural artifact and then obscuring its origins.  With a few exceptions, that is -- because that is exactly what they are doing when they take the A.D./B.C. calendar system, which is a cultural artifact of Christianity, then try to obscure its Christian origins.  This inconsistency is part of what makes this not merely anti-Christian, but also pseudo-intellectual.
  4. The other thing that makes it only pseudo-intellectual is the contrast with the metric system that is used in all modern science.
    • For one thing, when the French Revolutionaries decided that every vestige of the French monarchy was offensive, they did not simply rename the toise the metre, rename the pinte the litre, and rename the denier scruple the gram.  They developed a completely new system that was intended to be both practical and as nearly universal as possible.  So, for example, the meter was defined to be one ten-millionth of the distance between the north pole and the equator, the liter was defined to be one thousandth of a cubic meter, and the gram was defined to be one thousandth of the mass of a liter of water.  Because these units do not show favoritism or hostility to any people or culture, they have been universally adopted in the sciences.
    • As more and more precise measurements have become necessary, the metric units has been slightly altered so that they are defined in terms of experiments that yield consistent values at higher precision.  For example, the second is now defined not by the rotation of the earth, but from the frequency of light emitted by a particular transition in cesium atoms, resulting in more precise and accurate measurement of time.

Deodar section

At least the last two points can be fixed.  If it is decided to move away from the A.D./B.C. system for academic work, my suggestion would be to set year zero to A.D. 775, when intense solar storms left a distinctive mark in carbon-14 dating.  It has been suggested that this event could be used to calibrate tree ring dates from around the world, leading to much more precise dating of events in the ancient world.  This also has the advantage of corresponding to a world-wide physical event, so it is independent of culture and religion.  Also, for simplicity of calculations the years before A.D. 775 should be given negative numbers.  If this system were named the way SI (metric) units are named, it might be named after Andrew E. Douglass, the "father of dendrochronology".  

Monday, August 22, 2016

Bad Journalism in CBS Coverage of Donald Trump (2)

Here is a second example, which was actually published the day before the item which drew my previous comment:  "Donald Trump faces new backlash over pitch to black voters".  The problem here is slightly less egregious:  the term "backlash" is misleading.  In fact, the only "backlash" CBS News reports is from Hillary Clinton herself, and since both candidates are bashing and lashing each other as much as they can, this is not the surprise reaction that "backlash" might imply; to me at least, "backlash" implies something of a backfired plan.  A much better example of backlash would be the reaction to Trump's verbal war with the Khan family, which led to groups like the VFW condemning Trump. It's hard to escape the conclusion that CBS News is willing to twist any story they can to portray Trump in a bad light, journalistic integrity be damned.

I understand that they have a class bias against Trump voters, which they take out on Trump himself, but still, there are subtler ways of acting on that bias.

The actual response by Clinton is also worth noting.  All she is quoted as having tweeted was, 
This is so ignorant it’s staggering.
A response like this is typical from left-wingers when they are really unable to give a rational argument against a position, but they still want not only to oppose it, but to pretend they have the intellectual high ground.  (The right has its own version, which is usually a condescending, "I will pray for you.")  But the customer in Monty Python's "Argument Sketch" was right:
An argument isn't just contradiction. ... An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.
All Clinton was able to give was a pretentious contradiction. This is extremely disappointing.  The front-runner in the US presidential election should be able to do better than a mere "Nuh-uh!!"

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Bad Journalism in CBS Coverage of Donald Trump

I am not a fan of Donald Trump, and both he and Hillary Clinton are too seriously flawed to receive my vote.  That said, bad journalism is still bad journalism, and today's example comes from

Under the headline "Philippines's brash President Rodrigo Duterte threatens to quit the United Nations" we find
President Rodrigo Duterte, dubbed the “Filipino Donald Trump,” pointed to the haunting image of a bloodied child being pulled from the rubble of a missile-struck building in the Syrian city of Aleppo to note the inability of the U.S. and the U.N. to stop such deadly conflicts, complaining that he comes under fire for the killings of criminals.
There is nothing in the story that actually links Duterte to Trump, we are just told that he has been "dubbed" the Filipino Trump.  We are not told who did the dubbing.  However, there is a link, reproduced above, which leads to the May 10 story "Filipino 'Donald Trump' president-elect shows his soft side".  This story also has nothing to do with Trump, his only mention (aside from the title) being here:
The brash Duterte, who has been compared to U.S. Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump, has threatened to close down Congress and form a revolutionary government if legislators stonewall his government.
Again we are not told who has made the comparison, our only hint (if it is one) being the link to "Commentary: Who might be Trump's VP?" by Will Rahn, the managing editor for politics at CBSNews' digital division.  That commentary, though, makes no mention of Duterte.  CBS News never actually attributes the comparison to anyone, but instead leaves the implication that comparison originated in off-the-record conversations about politics by their own managing editor. 

This is atrocious journalism.  If the comparison had been made by one of Duterte's domestic opponents, it might have been newsworthy; if it had been made by the State Department under Obama or the Clinton campaign, it might also have been worth including.  If it comes from a conversation around the water cooler at the offices of CBS News it is, at most, something to mention in a clearly-labeled commentary or editorial.  It is not worth mentioning at all if it remains unattributed, for two reasons:
  1. it makes it impossible for us to judge the objectivity and credibility of the source, and
  2. it makes it unclear whether the comparison was intended to create an impression of Duterte or to create an impression of Trump.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Why Are We So Polarized?

I've just come across an excellent blog post by Rod Dreher (whom I recommend in general)1,2 entitled "Inside The Head Of Trump Voters".  His post is in turn a commentary on a very interesting speech given by Jonathan Haidt to the American Psychological Association.  Haidt has some key insights into the nature of political polarization in the West in general, and America in particular, together with how it has developed over the course of the past few decades -- and he has the statistics to back up his assertions.  The trends are alarming, as anyone even vaguely aware of the last few election cycles will have already guessed.
1 ...which does not mean I endorse all of his opinions, of course; although I agree with much of what he says, there are enough disagreements that I cannot recommend him the way I would recommend, for example, Chesterton.
2 After reading his column for a few months, I am no longer comfortable in even recommending him with a caveat. He's beginning to remind me of Mark Shea, in that although he often makes good points, there is a bitterness about him that is shockingly contrary to the fruit of the Spirit. "For the rest, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline, think on these things." St. Paul's advice is something Christian bloggers -- notably including me -- need to do a much better job of taking.

That's not to say the talk is without problems.  Perhaps the most obvious one is that when Haidt says that the country needs two parties -- one of "reform and progress" (which he identifies as a sort of idealized Democratic Party) and the other of "order and stability" (an idealized Republican Party) -- he restricts the "allowable" options for the country to those possibilities that lie between the status quo of 2016 and the most extreme fantasies of the Left.  There is no room in his schema for the many people who think the status quo of 2016 is already toxic and that the Democrats would only make things worse.  Not only would this exclude millions of people from the process, it would not be possible to go back to undo a mistake, much less to pursue an alternative goal that has never been realized in history but that is not in the direction that Obama and Clinton want to take us.  It would be like insisting that a car must have both an accelerator and a brake, but forgetting about the steering wheel.  I suspect this omission was unconscious; as the statistics and response of the crowd make clear, Haidt spends most of his time in the company of committed Democrats.

Aside from that omission -- the result of a major blind spot -- he tries to be "neutral" in his treatment of the two parties.  Oddly enough, this is also a flaw, because it leads him to completely ignore the competing truth claims.  Haidt must know that many people consider the Civil War to be a necessary price to pay to obtain the good of freedom for the slaves, and that many people consider the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be a necessary price to prevent even more casualties on both sides; he probably believes both these ideas himself.  Granted that the political tensions of today are unpleasant, we still need to know whether they are a necessary price for some greater good -- and we need to know what that greater good might be.

And the fact is that the period of increased antagonism that Haidt chronicles corresponds exactly to the period in which the "party of reform and progress" has "progressed" into uncharted moral waters.  Can it just be a coincidence that the worst polarization in American history since the Civil War begins with the legalization of abortion and culminates precisely with the unprecedented claim that two persons of the same sex can have a real marriage with each other?  Haidt is talking about moral psychology -- his term.  Wouldn't it be reasonable to investigate a link between dramatic changes in moral psychology and dramatic changes in morality when the two happen simultaneously?

Now Haidt would probably say that the laws about abortion and marriage are merely symbolic, but the idea that they don't actually affect the lives of many people is demonstrably false -- as is agreed by those on both sides of the issue.  Regardless, and in spite of the fact that I feel very strongly about these issues, the conflict over both these and many other issues is a consequence of a larger and more fundamental cultural conflict over the question whether or not there is a fixed answer to what it means to be human.  If the answer is yes, then we must abide by that fixed answer, and if the answer is no, then someone -- each individual?  the general population?  elected politicians?  judges?  academia? -- must choose an answer on an ongoing basis.  

It is hard to overstate how much rides on the answer to this question.  If there is no real right or wrong, then "right" ultimately becomes a servile euphemism for the will of the powerful.  Our world dissolves into a nightmare of Nietzsche and H. G. Wells; already we see something straight out of The Island of Doctor Moreau. This is something that transcends the traditional division between Right and Left; during the French Revolution, the Royalists believed that the king was "the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil," and the Revolutionaries believed in the Rights of Man, but they each thought that they were defending ideas that were objectively true.

I don't think many people put all this together, but they sense it, and many of them don't like it one bit.  That is why the changes have lead to such antagonism.  Something fundamental and important is at stake, and both sides know it.  A few awkward moments at family gatherings is not too high a price to pay.

One last thing:  The recent change has all been in one direction, as the Democrats have adhered with increasing fidelity to the idea that human nature is only a fiction and the Republicans have largely moved to take the same positions Democrats held ten or twenty years ago.  This again leaves those who are happy with neither the current position of the Democratic Party nor the position of the Democratic Party two decades ago frustrated and excluded from the debate.  On the other side, it gives proponents of the Democratic Party's worldview the sense that they are on the cusp of a conclusive triumph; they smell blood in the water and want to press their advantage to the maximum.

So yes, there are notable omissions, but it would be a mistake to undervalue Haidt's speech.  No sane person wants these political tensions to spill over into violence, and the statistics Haidt shows are truly alarming.  I have to wonder what similar statistics would have shown on the eve of the American, French, or Russian Revolution.  His advice for toning down the conflict is good, though I don't think it is sufficient to prevent what seems to be a looming crisis.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Why Not Try Americans at Guantanamo Bay?

The top story at this morning bears the title, "Donald Trump suggests trying Americans at Guantanamo Bay."  It is a headline intended to shock the reader -- after all, since the administration of George W. Bush it has been American policy that most of the U.S. Constitution does not apply to actions taken by the federal government in its overseas territories like Guantanamo Bay.  [Don't worry, though:  the part that makes the American president commander-in-chief of the American military applies everywhere and at all times, and unlike the Bill of Rights, there is never any talk of balancing this against any other consideration.]  This ends up meaning that "detainees", an Orwellian term if ever there was one, have no status and no rights whatsoever; they are essentially considered non-human, which is very different from how we treat even convicted criminals, let alone prisoners of war.  Guantanamo Bay has become America's oubliette, the place in which we throw people to forget about them.  This has been eased somewhat by the judicial branch, but only over the objections of the other two branches of American government.  

So it is actually quite easy to see why Americans would be shocked at the idea of U.S. citizens being subjected to such treatment by the American government.  The real question is why more Americans aren't shocked that the U.S. government is allowed to do this to anyone.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Scotts Ferry / Dead Lakes People

In my earlier post about James Richards, I thought about including the fact that Scotts Ferry, which is only about twenty miles from the Richards blockhouse, was founded by an American Indian named Jacob Scott and for many years was largely an Indian settlement.  However, it seems that only a few families had moved to that spot by 1849, which is when James Richards died, so this provides little evidence of him peacefully coexisting with Indians after the massacres.  It might seem a little surprising to have Indians move into the area so soon after a war fought over the Removal Act, but the difference seems to be that the newcomers did not try to maintain their own laws and political independence.

Honestly, this whole dimension of the story of Scotts Ferry came as a complete surprise to me.  My parents were married in the Methodist church at Scotts Ferry, and the churchyard is full of my relatives, including my grandfather and grandmother on my mom's side, but I never heard a whisper about the town being founded by an Indian.  Nor was there anything about this in any of the Florida history classes I took as a schoolboy -- classes that, in retrospect, were remarkably lacking in the sort of local information that might have made them "come alive".

The reason appears to be that none of my elders knew that Scotts Ferry was founded by an Indian.  The Jim Crow laws had tended to isolate the different racial communities from each other, and about the time those laws disappeared, the Indians largely dispersed to other parts of the country.  There was a real risk of this chapter of history being lost.

Fortunately, Christopher Scott Sewell and Steven Pony Hill have collected a good portion of this history into The Indians of North Florida: From Carolina to Florida, the Story of the Survival of a Distinct American Indian Community.  My only complaint is that the book suffers from some of the same problems as certain of the historical books of the Bible; lists of unfamiliar and difficult-to-pronounce names can interrupt the flow and distract the reader from the main point of the story.  It is definitely important to preserve the names, but I wonder if some reorganization of the material might have kept a tighter focus that would leave readers wanting to know all the details.  Perhaps some information should have been moved to an appendix or end notes.  Fortunately, the authors have also put up a web page dealing specifically with the history of Scotts Ferry, and gives a much more succinct picture.

As is so often the case with history, it is not a pretty picture, showing the inexcusable discrimination that was entrenched in laws and attitudes and that had much more serious consequences than determining where one sat on a bus or what water fountain one used.  I've known for a long time that there never really was a golden age and that the New Jerusalem will only descend from Heaven at the end of time, but I can't help still being disappointed to discover again and again that we humans have always been a pretty sorry lot.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

James Richards and the Legend of Bloody Bluff

Mosely Flag of Florida (1845) 
 Image from Zscout370 at English Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA-2.5,2.0,1.0 

This post is a little long and somewhat rambling, so let me apologize for that in advance.  I had planned to use a family legend as an example of how retaliation tends to spiral out of control, but it soon became apparent that the tale, though anchored in fact, requires some corrections and clarifications.  My sources are usually incomplete and often contradictory, but taken together they help fill in some holes in the often-repeated story.

My whole life I have heard variations on the following story.
Thomas C. Richards left Ocheesee and moved to a settlement on the Dead Lakes called Wewahichka. Thomas C. Richards and his sons built a log fort on the river bank for protection against unfriendly Indians. The fort was built with port holes and the families lived inside. On the night of Jan. 14, 1838 a band of hostile Indians came up the river by canoe, made a surprise attack on the fort and the battle lasted all night. Thomas C. Richards was killed in the attack. ... James Richards lost most of his family in a Creek Indian massacre. Under the threat of removal to lands in Arkansas, the Indians staged several uprisings. ... They killed Mrs. Richards and her three small sons in their log house. Harriett and Jehu, who were playing outside, went undetected by the Indians. They managed to steal into the deep swamp known today as Hunter's Head. When Richards returned home that night he found his home in ashes. In the midst of the smoldering rubble, he discovered the remains of his wife, who had been scalped, and his three children. Richards searched the woods for the other two but found only feathers fluttering in the breeze from the bed pillows that had once been inside the house. The next day Richards and his neighbors combed the swamp with their dogs. They found both children safe -- Jehu at a place known today as Jehu's Landing and little Harriett in another section of the alligator infested swamp. According to legend, Richards swore vengeance against all Indians after the massacre. He became a "madman" and spent his time "Indian hunting." In retaliation for what had been done to his family, Richards, along with several others, slew a band of Indians camped on a bluff on the Chipola River. Although lost today, the site was known for many years as "Bloody Bluff," because of the blood that ran down into the river after the attach.
Another version adds a few additional details.
In 1830, the federal government passed the Removal Act, which forced most of the Indians to move west to Arkansas and Indian territory. Rather than be relocated, some Indian bands went on an uprising, striking families when the men were gone. 

They massacred the wife and three small children of James (Jim) Richards and torched his home while he was away hunting with the other men. The older children, Jehu and Harriett, a young girl staying with the family, escaped in the deep swamp known as Hunter’s Head. But the date of the massacre is uncertain, with some saying it took place in 1838 and others believing it occurred earlier than that. 

To protect the Richards and other families attempting to survive on the frontier, John C. Richards and his sons built a two-story wooden fort so people could go there for protection. 

This structure of typical blockhouse design, measured 16 by 32 feet. It was built from heavy hewn logs, 10 inches square, and pegged together with oak pins. The second floor extended over the first. It was made with an opening in one side through which a ladder could be lowered and raised. Portholes were built into the walls of both stories for light and firing weapons. Many people sought protection at the fort, but Richards died in an attack on Jan. 14, 1838.
Yet another account of the same story contains the interesting "fact" that
Thomas Cupples Richards and his family were among the first group of white settlers along the river. Richards, who was born in France in 1770, came to America with his wife, Elizabeth Hogg, to escape religious persecution. 
I wish I knew the origin of that part of the story, which again I heard growing up and have spent most of my life repeating, but it has serious problems.
  • It is well documented that Thomas Cupples Richards was the son of George Richards of North Carolina.  
  • "Thomas" and "Stephen" could be either English or French names, but "Cupples" is an Anglo-Saxon name.
  • What kind of religious persecution was he supposed to have fled?  The persecution of the Huguenots had happened a century before he is supposed to have fled France, so if he was French and religious, he would have been Catholic.  The Catholic Church was indeed persecuted during the Terror of the French Revolution.  However, when we see the Richards family appear in Florida, they are Methodists.
At any rate, a few questions should arise from the "classic" version of this legend.
  • Why exactly did Thomas C. Richards move down to Wewahitchka?
  • Was the attack on the Richards homestead random, or was it targeted?
  • Why was James Richards away from home the night of the attack?
  • Who are the "others" who helped him "[slay] a band of Indians camped on a bluff on the Chipola River"?
  • If James Richards went crazy and started murdering Indians at every opportunity, how is it that he was not made to pay for his actions, either by the government or by the Indians?
A consideration of the context and timing of the events makes it possible to give plausible answers to these questions.

The Richards family started off with good relations with the Indians of Florida.  Perhaps the best summary comes from Calhoun County's The County Record:
Stephen Richards was appointed as interpreter for Chief John Blount and four other Indian chiefs who had acted as guides in Andrew Jackson's invasion of Spanish Florida in 1819. One of Stephen's first assignments was to accompany Chief John Blount to visit the President of the United States, President James Monroe. In his assignment as Indian Interpreter, he met with the Florida Indian Chiefs and the U.S. Commissioners at the Treaty of Fort Moultrie Creek. This treaty set up reservations for the Seminole nation and in particular, the five Indian Chiefs in the Apalachicola/Chattahoochee Valley. 

Stephen Richards proved many times his friendship for the five Indian Chiefs. Before the treaty of 1823, he visited Pensacola to discuss Indian affairs with Governor Andrew Jackson. Jackson, in a letter to Washington, D.C., gave an account of this trip to the Secretary of War, describing Richards and John Blount as good friends to him and to the United States. One part of the treaty that the United States government failed to validate was the grant to Stephen Richards of one square mile of land on the Ocheesee Bluff.
Stephen (1796-1871) first came to Florida in 1818, and his older brother Thomas C. Richards (1774-1838) followed in 1821.  Both men were veterans of the War of 1812. As such, they were each entitled to a claim of land in the new territory.

Unlike Stephen, Thomas seems not to have been much engaged with public life.  One might reasonably guess that he intended to grab up fertile land while the getting was good and exploit the long growing season to found a plantation larger than what his father, George Richards, had owned in North Carolina.  Ocheesee Bluff, where both Stephen and Thomas settled (and which essentially coincides with the site of Torreya State Park, where the Richards family reunion was held until the mid 1980's) was well-positioned for this, with the Apalachicola River providing access north into Georgia and south to the Gulf of Mexico.  However, a large plantation would have required slaves, and as far as I can tell, Thomas never had any during the time he was in Florida.  Possibly he made his living off land speculation, a well-established practice in new territories that in many ways still persists near the Florida beaches.

The 1790 census shows Thomas Richards of Beaufort, NC, as the head of a household that included one slave.  More significantly, the will of George Richards directed Thomas Richards to receive one third of his estate (after withholding Hicksey and a few items), which certainly could be expected to include slaves, but the Thomas Richards of Early, GA in the 1820 census, who is perhaps Thomas C. Richards, lived in a household of ten people in which there were no slaves and only one person was engaged in agriculture.  By the 1830 census, Thomas C. Cupples was living in a household of five, none of whom were slaves, and none of whom were listed as "engaged in agriculture", though they unquestionably had at least a small garden, as many people in the Florida Panhandle still do today.  The fact that he was able to move down to Wewahitchka a few years later also shows he was not tied down by a large plantation.

The territorial years of Florida saw significant changes that impact this story.  Aside from the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the most important one was the founding and growth of the city of St. Joseph, which was founded in 1835.  St. Joseph grew rapidly, its population of 6,000 making it for a few years the largest city in the territory of Florida and earning it the privilege of hosting the first constitutional convention to discuss Florida statehood, which was held in late 1838.  Sadly, St. Joseph would soon be destroyed by two disasters in rapid succession --  yellow fever in 1841 and "The Great Tide", probably a hurricane, in 1843 -- but at the time of the massacre, St. Joseph was near its peak.  One of the great benefits it brought was Florida's first steam-powered railway, which in 1836 connected St. Joseph with Lake Wimico, which flows into the Apalachicola River.  By 1839 it would connect to Iola, just east of Wewahitchka.

The attraction of the site at Wewahitchka to Thomas C. Richards thus becomes clear.  It was near the confluence of the Apalachicola and Chipola rivers, and it would soon be connected by railroad to the most populous city in the territory, a city that was showing signs of being politically important.  This would be an excellent spot for a plantation -- or to buy land that might be sold to a planter later.  Being so close to a "large city", the site might even provide better protection from Indian raids than the comparatively remote Ocheesee Bluff.

There was, after all, trouble brewing with the Indians; the threat of removal had triggered the Second Seminole War.  Not all the Indians were hostile to white settlers, though, and who better to recognize and organize these friendly Indians than Stephen Richards?  Accordingly, he organized Richards' Company of Friendly Indians as a part of the Mounted Florida Militia in 1837.  Among the names on the muster are Stephen Richards, captain; John G. Richards, first lieutenant; John Richards, first sergeant; James Richards, Sr., and James Richards, Jr.  

It is impossible to be sure, but the James Richards referred to in the massacre story is mostly likely James Richards, Sr., who was probably the son of Thomas C. Richards.  Unfortunately, the records are incomplete and contradictory, and James was a popular name in the Richards family.  Thomas C. and Stephen Richards had a brother named James who had been an army captain in the American Revolution, but he lost a hand in a duel and died not long afterwards; since no James is mentioned in the will of George Richards, the James of the massacre story must not have been a third brother.  The James of the massacre story had to be old enough to have at least three children, which makes it very unlikely that he was the James Richards born to Stephen Richards in 1820.  Thomas C. Richards was 24 years older than Stephen, though, so he could well have had a grandson old enough to fight.

A similar problem comes with the identity of Jehu Richards.  A son named Jehu was born to Thomas C. Richards around 1799, but he could not have been described as a child in 1838!  However, some sources indicate that Stephen Richards had a son Jehu in 1830, which would have made him 7 or 8 years old at the time of the massacre. 

So let me tie this all together in a way that is somewhat speculative, but much more plausible than the incomplete version of the story normally told.  

Knowing that major trouble was brewing with many of the Indians, Stephen and Thomas C. Richards concentrated their families in a fortified blockhouse.  They sited the house at a location which made strategic sense from both military and economic perspectives.   Stephen Richards also organized friendly natives into a fighting force.  However, he was such a known figure among the Indians that this action could not fail to be noticed.  As a result, the blockhouse holding his family -- and very likely acting as a sometimes base of operations for his Company -- was specifically targeted.

When James "was away hunting with the other men", he was not hunting for meat, he was hunting for hostiles, along with his brother John George Richards and his uncle Stephen Richards.  No doubt he was wild with grief and anger at the fate of his family, but the statement that he "went crazy" and "became an Indian hunter" might mean no more than that he tracked and fought the hostile Indians with amplified intensity and savagery.  He certainly did not attack the men under the command of Stephen Richards.  In fact, these mounted, armed, friendly Indians were probably who made it possible for the Richards family to exact retribution on those who had slaughtered their families.  Furthermore, because his actions took place in the context of war, there was no stigma on the killing and there were no legal consequences for James Richards.

Today there is a campsite maintained by the State of Florida at a place called "Bloody Bluff" only about 5 miles from the site of the Richards' blockhouse.  The official explanation, however, links the name to unrelated skirmishes fought back in 1816.  Possibly both the 1816 skirmishes and the 1838 retaliation happened near the same spot, and the place name fits either event.  There is also a "Bloody Bluff" near the original homestead at Ocheesee Bluff, but that is too far away for it to be a likely part of this story.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Yes, There Is Such a Thing as a Stupid Question.

Teachers like to tell kids that there is no such thing as a stupid question.  If understood as an exaggeration, that's fine:  it makes a point which is particularly important for schoolchildren.  That, however, is no excuse for adults to mindlessly repeat it as though it were a fundamental truth with no exceptions.

For the sake of clarity, let's call the person asking the question Quincy and the person who hears it (whether or not it is addressed to her) Heather.

A question might be stupid because it reveals too much about what Quincy knows or does not know.  For example, if Heather is trying to sell something to Quincy, it might not be in his interest to let her know he does not understand all the details about what he is buying; she might try to persuade him to buy features he does not really need or charge him more than the fair market price.

Alternatively, a question can make an unfair insinuation.  These are particularly obnoxious, because they allow Quincy to cause all the harm of a direct accusation while still providing him cover under the excuse, "I was just asking a question!"  A friend of mine has suffered a good deal recently due to just such a hateful question -- in this case, a very intrusive, personal question from someone who was no more than a casual acquaintance, and who has used it to spread hurtful gossip across the dog park my friend has been using.

A question can also be stupid if it predictably and unnecessarily brings up painful memories for Heather.
 This has also been brought home to me by recent events.  A few days ago I discovered that a friend I had known many years ago, but with whom I had not been in regular contact, has passed away.  The last time I communicated with this friend, she made a comment that was shockingly out of character.  The comment did not in any way involve me, but the friend would have undoubtedly known that it would disturb me.  In fact, I did not believe the comment could be taken at face value; I suspected it to have been an indirect message to get lost.  Not knowing how else to respond, that is what I did.  So now, if I am troubled by uncertainty about what exactly was going on near the end of this friend's life, I must live with that uncertainty.  The opportunity to ask my friend is gone, and it would be massively inappropriate to ask for clarification from anyone who was closer to her in her last days -- both because it would bring up painful memories of her loss, and because it might appear I was trying to besmirch her memory.

An old standard piece of spiritual advice is to speak only when necessary.   For most people under most circumstances, I don't think that needs to be interpreted very rigorously, but I do think it makes an important point.  After all, we are told that we must give an account for "every careless word".  Some of those careless words are formed into questions that really are stupid.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Regarding Immigration

As the election season progresses beyond any hope of being salvaged, it is probably appropriate that I explain my thinking regarding immigration.  This is one of the issues for which no party has a satisfactory policy.

To start with, let me say that immigration policy is entirely unlike abortion policy.  If the fetus is in fact a human person (which it is), then it is wrong to murder that person, with no exceptions, and it is matter of public interest.  If the fetus were not a human person, abortion would be as much a personal decision as a haircut, and it would be the business of no one but the woman seeking the abortion.  The in-between positions are just nonsense.  These include the assertion that only women should have a say about abortion -- all women, not just the woman seeking the abortion.  That doesn't work: it's either everyone's business, or no one's business; either it's public, or it's private.  Likewise with the "politically moderate" exceptions to abortion of rape and incest.  They make no more sense than it would to criminalize the abuse of five year olds, except for those children who were conceived through rape or incest.  Most things in politics are not all-or-nothing in the way abortion is, and immigration policy certainly is not.

Immigration policy is more like economic policy.  In economics the two extremes might be taken to be a planned economy under the total control of a central authority, as in Communism, and a complete Laissez Faire Capitalism, governed only by supply and demand.  We know from history that both are prone to enormous abuses, and that neither really works.  Economies under central control lack the creativity and flexibility needed to thrive, and unimpeded Capitalism is unstable, subject to both cycles of booms and busts and to monopolization.  As a result, even the most enthusiastic supporters of Capitalism now generally accept the necessity of bankruptcy protection and federally insured deposits, and usually prohibitions on price gouging, dumping, and insider trading; as for Communism, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the adoption by China of more-or-less free markets, it is hard to find anyone except North Korea seriously advocating that system.  There is practical unanimity that the best system must lie between the two extremes, although plenty of squabbling remains about exactly which compromise solution is best.  And, of course, the compromise that works best for Texas might not work best for Sweden.

On one extreme of the immigration debate are those who seem to think that each country has an obligation not only to let in anyone who wishes to come, but also to assist them in their travels, ensure them food, clothing, shelter, medical assistance, and a job as soon as they arrive, give them full citizenship, and expect absolutely no conformity to the culture of their new country.  Although this position seems to be popular with many clerics, it is still obviously hogwash, since it would mean that no nation could defend itself from being washed out of existence by an invading horde -- and the diversity of cultures we get from having separate and distinct nations is a good that should not be casually and carelessly discarded.  It should also be pointed out that it is naive to assume that the people who make use of the generosity of others will necessarily show generosity in turn -- particularly if they have not been asked to accept the culture of their new homeland.

On the other extreme are those who are willing to give the government absolutely anything it needs or says it needs to prevent illegal immigration and to deport illegal aliens who are already here.  Absolutely.  Anything.  That's the sort of talk that makes any would-be dictator's mouth water, because to get rid of 11 million illegal immigrants we would need to become a full-fledged police state.  That is far too high a price to pay for the 96.6% of American residents who are not illegal aliens, let alone the 3.4% who are.

Just because the best solution must lie between the extremes does not mean that every solution between the extremes is good.  In fact, our current system is between the two extremes, and it is perhaps the worst possible solution.  We make it only moderately difficult for people to cross the border illegally -- just hard enough that they are invested in being here when they arrive, having either endured hardship or paid what to them is a substantial sum of money, or both.  Once here, as long as they do not draw attention to themselves, they might be able to stay for decades, meaning of course that they put down roots.  If they attract the attention of law enforcement, though, they are subject to deportation.  Deportation may not sound like such a bad thing if your picture is of being deported from a holiday destination after violating a local taboo while on vacation, but think instead of the deportation from Anatevka at the end of "Fiddler on the Roof".  For those who have made substantial investments or put down roots, it is a real punishment indeed.

What this set of circumstances means is that illegal immigration is not seriously impeded, providing a steady supply of low-income workers to industries that choose to pay wages that do not attract American workers.  Even "better", because illegal aliens do not want to attract the attention of law enforcement, they are not likely to report unsafe working conditions, missing pay, or other abuses, allowing their employers to cut even more corners.  There is no way I believe all this is a coincidence.

My preferred alternative would be the polar opposite of what currently exists.  We should make it very difficult for anyone to enter the country illegally, but we should be much more lenient on those who have already come and put down roots without engaging in violent crime.  If someone does meet the criteria for having "put down roots" -- perhaps by having been in the U.S.A. for 10 years without being charged for a violent crime -- he should have the option of renouncing his foreign citizenship and becoming a permanent U.S. national.  As a national, rather than a citizen, he would be ineligible to vote or hold elected office, and unlike those born in American Samoa, he could never apply for citizenship, but otherwise he would have all the same rights as a U.S. citizen.  Or perhaps he could also be banned from holding any government job other than serving in the military, although I would probably allow that to be upgraded to full citizenship if he serves 6 years in the U.S. military.

We have the right, even the duty, to control our borders, but we need to do so in a way that avoids doing more harm than good.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Three New Planks for the Republican Platform

  1. Crush your enemies.
  2. See them driven before you.
  3. Hear the lamentations of their women.
This is what happens when they put Arnold Schwarzenegger on the platform committee. 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Passing of the Last Generation of Holocaust Survivors

The recent news of the death of Elie Wiesel reminded me of Mike Jacobs.  Mr. Jacobs, who founded the Dallas Holocaust Museum, spoke at the university where I taught about a dozen years ago; sadly, he passed away almost two years ago.  I am ashamed to say I have only skimmed his book, Holocaust Survivor: Mike Jacobs' Triumph over Tragedy, but the title very much conveys the tone of the talk he gave.

In fact, the title is too much of an understatement.  "Triumph over tragedy" can mean many things, including revenge, but in the case of Mike Jacobs, it meant something much more rare:  triumph over bitterness.  Given what he saw, what he experienced, and what he lost, I do not think it would be possible to forgo bitterness without cooperating with divine grace to the extent of heroic virtue.  If an Armenian monk not visibly in union with Rome could be declared both a Saint and Doctor of the Church, perhaps Mike Jacobs is now a Saint, though one who will never be canonized.

It will probably be another ten, fifteen, or even twenty years until the last of the death camp survivors passes away, but we are clearly at a point where their numbers will be falling rapidly.  When we lose them, we will lose a sense of the reality of the horrors they endured.  If you want to know what I mean, compare how we think about World War I with the effect it had on the course of history over the past hundred years.  It brought about the end of many of the traditional structures of Europe that made Europe the center of Christendom, including the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the fall of the Tsar; it set up the conditions for both Nazism and Communism; it made nations reluctant to intervene against Nazism before it was too late; and it triggered a boom in decadence and occultism that would be more obvious were we not experiencing an even bigger boom right now.  How do we think about it, though?  Merely as a quaint prelude to World War II and "the Greatest Generation".  We think of Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.  We have photos, documents, and artifacts that testify to the horrors of World War I, but without human witnesses, it necessarily feels somewhat imaginary.  That will soon be happening to the Holocaust, and the world will truly have lost something when it happens.

When I see articles written in response to the death of Elie Wiesel saying "now it is up to us to remember", though, one of the first things that comes to my mind is that too few people understand what the point is, what is the thing that we really need to remember.  Many people think what we should remember is, to quote Donald Duck, "Oh, boy!  Am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America!" ... where such things presumably cannot happen.  Gratitude and patriotism are good things, but they are NOT the lesson the Holocaust teaches, and a naive American exceptionalism is in fact close to the polar opposite of what it teaches.  Many others see the lesson as being that if we are not vigilant, others may do terrible things like this to us.  I will concede that at least this is one of the lessons of the Holocaust, but not one of the more shocking or important ones.  There are two of those.

To understand the first lesson, consider that although some people can obviously run faster or jump higher than others, human physiology limits how fast anyone can run and how high anyone can jump.  We may not know exactly where these limits are, but the current world records are probably pretty close to the maxima, and we would expect, say, the average speed of all adults in any given city in the 100-m dash to fall within the range of speeds for people we know.  

It is natural to expect an analogous situation to apply to evildoing.  We know that people can do some pretty terrible things, but surely human nature must provide a limit to how evil a person can be, and we have a pretty good feeling for where that is, right?  Well, even if such a limit does exist, it did not prevent Mengele from performing abominable experiments on children that he met and knew -- demonstrating a magnitude of evil that is entirely beyond my comprehension.  Well, what about nations?  Surely in any large nation the good people and the bad people must average out to pretty much the same value everywhere, right?  Again, the answer is no.

So the first lesson is that we have much more freedom to choose good or evil, both as individuals and as nations, than we might have reasonably expected.  We cannot trust to human nature to keep things from becoming too bad; we must instead actively and consciously restrain ourselves.  

The second lesson is closely related to the first.  It is not just that if we are not careful, we might suffer horrible deaths.  Whether we are talking about leprosy or Ebola or any of dozens of other horrific diseases, that possibility has been known for ages.  No, the lesson is that if we are not careful, we run the real risk of becoming more evil than we can fully comprehend.  It can happen here, unless we prevent it.  It has already happened in a "civilized" nation with a culture nearly identical to ours.

It would be wrong to close on a note that is so grim it might sound hopeless, so let me instead leave you with a quote from Jesus in John 16:33b:
In the world you shall have distress: but have confidence, I have overcome the world.
EDIT:  It occurred to me after submission that there is another lesson, this one slightly more reassuring:  There is a suicidal component to evil.  This can be seen time and time again, but Nazi Germany is perhaps the most outstanding example.  If the Reich had stopped at being nasty and discriminatory, it would not have become the most prominent symbol for evil in the modern world.  If the Reich had been content with annexing Austria and the Sudetenland, it would probably still be around today, and it might have survived if it had merely held onto half of France and half of Poland without also attacking the U.S.S.R., but of course it did.  Germany even declared war on the U.S.A. when America might well have been content to confine our war to Japan after Pearl Harbor!  And of course the theory of Aryan supremacy was most thoroughly disproved by the very test the Nazis chose to put it to:  world war.  Evil sews the seeds of its own destruction.

Friday, July 1, 2016

A Naive, Passive, Navy Seal?

The first death of a "driver" in a self-driving car on public roads has just been reported.  That was an eventual inevitability, so in that sense not much of a surprise.  What is a surprise, though, is that the "driver", Joshua D. Brown, had spent 11 years as a Navy Seal.  I've known a couple of Navy Seals, and I can think of ways they might die after retirement:  in a skydiving accident, or a cave diving accident, or a climbing accident, or a motorcycle accident.  A Seal might have a parachute fail to open properly, but you can dang well be sure he would have packed it himself.  He might have a line break while climbing, but it would be one that he had chosen and inspected first.  In other words, I would expect that if he dies early, it will be because he is doing something active and placed too much trust in himself; otherwise he is likely to die of a more humdrum cause, like too many cigarettes.  He would know from experience not to put too much trust in technology, because he would have seen technology fail and would have been trained to adapt when that happens.

So when I read that a veteran Navy Seal has died due to placing too much faith in a self-driving car, and that (according to the truck driver's account) he had felt that a Harry Potter movie was a better use of his time and concentration than driving ... something just does not add up.  No, I'm not claiming foul play and a cover-up; I'm just saying it does not add up.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

My Revolutionary War Ancestors: George Richards

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). -- Historical Marker at the Site of Richards Cemetery, Florida

There are a number of difficulties with this inscription.  Even the Richards plantation cannot be placed in Virginia. According to an online message board post,
Mrs. Susan Bennett Wester, then of Hokes Bluff, Alabama wrote up the history of her ancestors. The following is given as this history in her own words: "My great-grandfather, George Richards and his brother James, came from Nansemond County, Va., before the Revolutionary war and settled at the Richards homestead, about five miles Northeast from Louisburg. The place was then Bute County, and under British rule; after 1779 it was in Franklin County and under colonial rule; later still it was and now is within the jurisdiction of the United States Government. Thus it will be seen that George Richards lived in two different counties and under three different governments and yet lived in the same house all the time. All I know of my Richards ancestors, I learned from my grandmother, who died 1844, when I was twelve years old..."
It is important to note that this is entirely consistent with other records, such as his will.  I had hoped that either the plantation or its cemetery would be indicated by a North Carolina historical marker, but such is not the case.
As for George Richards being a Revolutionary War soldier, that is also almost certainly untrue.  Contrary to what is claimed on some Internet sites, his obituary did not state that he was himself a Revolutionary War soldier, but only that six of his sons were.  (Thomas Cupples Richards, from whom I am descended, was born in 1774, so he had no part in that war.)  Furthermore, if George Richards had been in the Continental Army, his experience and social position would undoubtedly have made him an officer -- his son James was an army captain.  There are many men who answered to the name of "George Richards" and participated in the Revolutionary War -- for example, a naval chaplain from Rhode Island, whose literary accomplishments include a (mediocre) poem about the Declaration of Independence, an "Indian spy" from Virginia (who seemed to be a very promising lead, given that "my" George Richards had a son, Stephen, who was an important Indian translator in early Florida), the unrelated George Richards Minot, but most importantly, his own son, George Richards, Jr.  However, there are no good matches to the place and rank where "my" George Richards should have been expected, which is among the officers from North Carolina.

There is a wonderful extended family story from the descendants of Micajah "Cage" Davis about his adventures during the Revolutionary War with a "Capt. George Richards", and how Cage came to marry Capt. Richards's sister Martha "Patty" (or "Patsy") Richards as a reward for obtaining some cattle for the starving troops at the Battle of Cowpens.  The story includes the note
This account is in conflict with the tree that describes Capt. Geo. Richards as Patty’s father, who was a known Revolutionary War soldier born in England and it would also be unlikely that a brother would betroth his sister.
I suspect that this story somewhat exaggerates Cage's role in starting the Battle of Cowpens, but it certainly does confuse George Richards, Sr., George Richards, Jr., and James Richards.  The captain who had his hand cut off in a duel was James Richards.  George Richards, Jr., was about the same age as Cage, and since they were both privates from the same part of North Carolina (though not, it seems, in the same companies), they may well have been friends.  It is likely that when Cage's descendants heard him talk about a "Captain Richards" and about "George Richards", his friend and eventual brother-in-law, the two became confused, particularly since James Richards died in 1781, unsurprisingly not long after losing his hand and six years before Cage married Patty.

A great deal can be learned from George's will, which I give here in full.  
In the name of God, amen. 
I, George Richards of the county and state aforesaid, being of sound mind and memory, do think proper to make this my last will and testament in manner and form following: 
Item 1st: I give and bequeath unto each of my sons: Joshua Richards, Stephen Richards, and George Richards, the sum of one dollar each.
Item 2nd: I give & bequeath to my Daughter, Patsy Davis, one bead and furniture her choice, one bound tea table, her choice of my chests, my loom, & all the thereunto belonging and also one third part of all my personal property of whatsoever nature or kind it may consist in, with the exception of my Negro woman, Hicksey, to her, and her heirs, assigns for ever. 
Item 3rd: I give & bequeath unto my son, Thomas C. Richards and unto my Grandsons, John & Jeter Hog, sons of my Deceased daughter, Jane Hog, the remaining two thirds of all my personal estate of whatsoever nature and kind it may consist in except the aforesaid Negro woman, Hicksey, that is to say, I give to Thomas C. Richards the one half of the two thirds of my estate hereby given to him, his heirs and assigns for ever. The other half to be divided between John & Jeter Hog on their arrived at lawful age and in the event that of them should dye before they arrive at lawful age, it is my will and desire that the survivors share the whole estate,hereby intended to be divided between them, to then, their heirs, and offspring for ever. 
Item 4th: It is my will and desire that my Negro woman, Hicksey, Who has been a faithful and dutiful slave, be liberated and set free and I hereby request and enjoin it on my Executor after named to use all lawful means in their power to have her emancipation and set free, but should my desire to have the said Negro woman, Hicksey, set free prove abortive, it is my will & desire that my son, Joshua Richards shall have the said Negro woman, Hicksey not doubting, but he will endeavor to comply with my will or maintain my said Negro woman, Hicksey on easy terms and not on the of real bondage and that he will act towards her the part of a friend more than that of a master. 
I hereby nominate and appoint my friends, Amus Jones, John Perry (_____) and _______ Gordon executors to this, my last will & testament. Whereof I have hereunto set my hand this 17th June, A.D. 1818. 
Witness Present, 
Nath Hunt 
John Thomas 
George Richards seal (his mark) 
There are a number of hints that make me think I would not have liked George Richards, Sr.  For one thing, there is this from DAR records:
Patty Richards married Micajah Davis in 1784, despite not having the approval of her father. George was a wealthy man and wanted a more affluent husband for Patty. 
The year is off, but that is no reason to suspect the thrust of the statement. It is backed up by this:
In 1784 Micajah married Patty Richards. Her father being a wealthy man, opposed the match on the grounds that young Davis was a poor man- -though he owned a good plantation- - and was so enraged that he never gave her anything until his death, at which time she received the old homestead and several negroes, besides other property...
Allowances must be made for the age and the culture of the day, and whatever breach may have opened due to the marriage was clearly closed by the time of his death, as his will is generous to Patty; but he still comes across as a bit of an arrogant jerk.

One other factor bothers me more than it would most people.  George Richards was a Freemason, and Masonry requires oaths that can only be made flippantly by disregarding God as a reality, but which if taken seriously make Masonry a distinct religion.

Finally, not only did George Richards own several slaves (the 1800 census shows him with 13), but the obsession in his will with his "Negro woman, Hicksey, Who has been a faithful and dutiful slave" has a distinctly creepy feel to it, one that brings to mind the "relationship" between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.  If George were really so solicitous for Hicksey's freedom, I see no reason he could not have freed her during his lifetime, but he no more did that than Jefferson gave Sally Hemings her freedom.