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.