Category Archives: History

What an odd thing to say at this moment in history

The fuss over her tweets seems rather silly.

The fuss over her tweets seems rather silly.

The headline attracted me: “Why should Neera Tanden have to be confirmed by the Senate, anyway?

I’m not particularly interested in the case of Ms. Tanden, or the job she has been nominated to fill (it has to do with money, right?). But I was interested to see what sort of argument would be presented, and whether it had any merit.

After all, a case can be made that this or that office shouldn’t require the Senate’s advice and consent. As this author points out, the president’s chief of staff doesn’t have to be confirmed, so why should a functionary such as this one? And of course, it’s absurd how long it takes a new president to get his team in place. If there are legitimate ways to accelerate the process, let’s discuss them. As this author says, “Posts can go unfilled for months or even years. This keeps a president from doing what he was elected to do.”

(“This author,” by the way, is one Henry Olsen, with whom I was not familiar — even though he is apparently something of a regular in the Post. I guess his past headlines haven’t awakened my curiosity.)

Anyway, he was cooking along fairly well, even though he was edging close to problematic territory in the fourth graf, which begins, “These concerns were justified in 1789.” He’s talking about the reasons why the Framers included advice and consent in the Constitution, and apparently he is attracted to the seductive, modernist (excuse me for using such a harsh, condemnatory term) idea that what was a good idea then isn’t necessary now. But while I harrumphed a bit, I kept going to let the gentleman make his case.

Then I got to this:

It’s ludicrous to think this could happen today. Presidents arise from an extensive democratic process that makes them directly responsible to the people. They build political coalitions from diverse groups that seek to use public power to advance their agendas. These factors constrain the president far more than Senate confirmation. These considerations, along with the 22nd Amendment, which limits presidents to no more than two full terms, means there is little reason to fear that a president can turn the office into a personal fief wielding power without constraint.

Yikes! Trump has only been out of office, what, five minutes? Where has this guy been the last four years? We just lived through a period during which the nightmare foreseen by Hamilton, et al., came to life, to an extent he and the others probably couldn’t imagine in 1789. And everyone knows this! If there is any upside to Trump’s time in office, it’s that he got so many people to go back and read the Federalist Papers, because they realized we had before us such a lurid example of what those guys were on about.

What an extremely odd time to say such a thing!

Look, I don’t care whether this woman becomes head of the OMB or not. Personally, if Joe wants her, I’m inclined to give her the job, and the fuss over her past tweets seems pretty silly, but it’s not an important issue the way, say, Merrick Garland’s nomination as attorney general is.

But dang, if you’re going to argue that people nominated for this position shouldn’t have to undergo confirmation, then do it in a way that doesn’t make us think you spent the last four years in a cave!

I’ve got to go back and read that bit again: “Presidents arise from an extensive democratic process that makes them directly responsible to the people.”

Oh, let’s take a look at what those “people” — 74 million of whom voted for the guy again — are up to now… Have you seen this video from the CPAC gathering? Oh yeah, these people are gonna keep this guy accountable…

Nice job there, Ah-nold

Just thought I’d share this video Arnold Schwarzenegger put out yesterday.

It’s gotten a lot of positive reactions. Conan O’Brien said, ““This is the most powerful and uniquely personal statement I’ve heard from ANYONE on where we are right now as a country.”

I thought it fitting to quote O’Brien, since in the video, Arnold wields his “Conan” sword…

Conan sword

Here’s hoping the NEXT state flag is better

5fdd1877300d6.image

Did you see the “official” South Carolina state flag that a “high-powered team of historians,” in the words of Avery Wilks at the Post and Courier, had put together for lawmakers to consider?

As Avery reported Dec. 27:

South Carolina historians settle on a new state flag design

COLUMBIA — A high-powered team of historians has done the research and determined what South Carolina’s state flag should look like once and for all.

Rest assured, not much is changing.

The flag will still feature a white Palmetto tree and crescent against an indigo blue backdrop, a combination of historically significant elements that makes South Carolina’s flag one of the most iconic banners in the country — and, arguably, one of the only good ones.

But next year, lawmakers will have a chance to nail down details of the design that have been in flux since the last official flag specifications were repealed in 1940.

The height and shape of the tree in the flag’s center. The shade of indigo that colors the background. The thickness and angle of the crescent in the upper left hand corner — note: the crescent is not a moon, historians say. …

Anyway, it turns out they may have thought they had “settled” on it, but once people reacted to the unveiled proposal on social media, the team has gone back to the drawing board. They had done an about-face three days later, when another story from Avery started this way:

South Carolina’s new flag design seemed like a fine idea — right up until everyone actually saw it.

As it turns out, people hate it. They really, really hate it…

I was one of those who had reacted. I won’t say I hated it exactly. I was more like, “Say what…?”

My attention was drawn to it on the 28th by Mandy Powers Norrell, who reacted to Avery’s story with this brief review: “Those fronds tho.

Yeah, I thought. Is this just after a hurricane? And doesn’t the trunk look — indistinct? Low-res? Stepping back a bit, I added, “I’m sure it’s fine. If you ask me to LOOK at something, I’m going to see flaws…”

I kept trying to be positive, adding “I mean, it’s PROBABLY fine. I just looked at it again. It’s… blurry. Maybe it’s a bad jpg file or something…”

I thought what Mandy said next was pretty smart: “I agree. I could get used to it. I could also get used to the idea that we don’t have an official design and that it’s conceptual. I think there’s merit in that too. It feels more accessible.”

Yes! That’s the way to go. A concept rather than a template. Something that means what it means to each of us. Organic…

In other words, we don’t need anybody to tell us exactly where to put our palmetto tree. Or to tell us how close to the corner the crescent moon has to be. Or to tell us the blue has to be Pantone 282 C.

Do we?

(I’m seeing this as an opportunity to agree with some of my libertarian friends out there. For once…)

pantone

Here we are now, in a world without Chuck Yeager

2560px-Chuck_Yeager

There’s a blog post I’ve been meaning to write in recent days expressing my great disappointment with the Disney+ TV series, “The Right Stuff.” It is a strange, flat, uninviting and even depressing retelling of the tale of the seven Mercury astronauts. That’s it, just the astronauts. Nothing about the context in which they came into being. Nothing about the culture of test pilots that produced them, and set the standard they wanted to live up to.

No Chuck Yeager. How can you name a series after that concept Tom Wolfe introduced into our popular lexicon, and leave Chuck Yeager out of it?

Chuck was the embodiment of the Right Stuff, and the whole world — the world of pilots, at least, knew it. Early in Wolfe’s book, he wrote about the way airline pilots act and talk — their matter-of-factness, their lollygaggin’ lack of concern about potential problems in flight (“I believe it’s that little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right…”), their folksy accents — and traced it all to back to the influence that one man had upon the world of aviation, that man being Yeager. They all wanted to fly like him, they all wanted to be him, and failing that, they would at least sound like him.

Because he not only had the right stuff, he was the right stuff.

What, exactly, was this “ineffable quality” of which Wolfe wrote?

… well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. . .any fool could do that. . . . No, the idea. . .seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment–and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day. . . . There was a seemingly infinite series of tests. . .a dizzy progression of steps and ledges. . .a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even–ultimately, God willing, one day–that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself….

And at the top of the top of that ol’ pyramid was Yeager.

It’s not just about breaking the sound barrier. Yeager was just the ultimate pilot’s pilot. Yes, he was a natural stick-and-rudder man, and the wonderful movie version of Wolfe’s book back in the ’80s captured that and played it for all it was worth, but he also thoroughly understood the machine he flew on a fundamental level. He wasn’t an engineer — he had his friend Jack Ridley, and others, for that — but he was a guy whose reports the engineers liked to read, because he knew what they needed to be told.

And yes, he was a hero, long before breaking that demon that lived in the thin air. A fighter pilot was considered an ace when he’d shot down five enemy planes. Yeager did that in one day. He shot down Me-109s and Focke-Wulf 190s, and even one of those jets the Nazis built. He had sort of a superpower: With his unaided eyes, he could see the enemy coming 50 miles away. But mainly, he outflew and outfought them. Not that he was invulnerable. He got shot down behind German lines, but escaped back to England. That meant he had to go home — he knew things that could endanger the underground if he were shot down again and captured. But he bucked it all the way up to Ike, and Ike let him stay and keep fighting.

He hadn’t been to college, and wasn’t an officer when he started flying in the war. But he broke that barrier, too — he was a captain when he flew the X-1 into history, and his repeatedly demonstrated skill, courage and dedication took him all the way to the rank of brigadier general.

And now he’s gone, and we won’t see his like. As bad as it is to have a TV show called “The Right Stuff” without Yeager in it, now we all have to live in a world that doesn’t have him. Man is mortal, and bound to end up this way. But Yeager packed an awful lot of awesome stuff into the 97 years before that….

Now is the winter of their discontent… apparently

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in "The Hollow Crown: The Wars of The Roses."

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of The Roses.” We don’t need this…

This is a very dangerous time, a time no Americans have faced before.

A rough beast squats in the White House, refusing to move, even though it’s his time to slouch off (is it OK to mix references to Shakespeare and Yeats, or is that kind of like confusing metaphors?).

Almost half of the country (thank God less than half) voted for him, and has been brainwashed by him into utterly rejecting reality. And now he is rejecting his own rejection. We have never seen this before, ever. And we have never had so many people seemingly ready to accept something so profoundly, shockingly unAmerican. Now is the winter of their discontent, and they are acting as though they wish to bring the cold dark upon the whole country.

I referred to this in a tweet last night:

Four years ago, I flirted with the idea that maybe — in a vain attempt to embrace their duty as Alexander Hamilton conceived it — presidential electors should refuse to vote for Trump.

I realized I was wrong — partly in response to comments some of you, such as Phillip Bush and Dave Crockett, posted to correct me — and did something you seldom see me do: I wrote and published a separate post saying I was wrong, and why. In other words, I did what we’re all waiting for Trump’s supporters (not so much the man himself; let’s not expect too much) to do — I came to my senses.

Aside from the guidance from some of you, I was influenced by the fact that I had been watching the second half of “The Hollow Crown,” a brilliant compilation of eight of Shakespeare’s history plays — from Richard II to Richard III — telling the horrible story of the Wars of the Roses.

I highly recommend the two series. After watching that second one (the three Henry VI plays and Richard III) I put the first series (Richard II through Henry V) on my Amazon gift list, and someone in my family was was kind enough to get it for me. You really should try watching them, particularly the bloody second batch.

That, and my more personal wanderings through history compiling my family tree, impressed me more than ever how fortunate we were to be living in the world’s oldest and most stable liberal democracy. As I wrote at the time:

For so much of human history, no one had much of a sense of loyalty to a country, much less to a system of laws. They couldn’t even be relied on to be loyal to a certain lord for long. Everybody was always looking for the main chance, ready to kill to gain advantage even temporarily.

Our 240-year history, our country of laws and not of men, is a blessed hiatus from all that. We may descend into barbarism yet — and yes, the election of a man who shows little respect for the rule of law is not a good omen — but so far the Constitution has held….

At least, it had held up to that point. But it hadn’t been tested yet the way it’s about to be tested…

"Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens," by Henry Albert Payne

“Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens,” by Henry Albert Payne

Finally, we’re done with the stupid ‘debates’

kennedy nixon

Was there ever a time when presidential debates were useful?

Sure, we can go back and watch the Kennedy-Nixon debates, and mourn for a time when candidates stood there (or, as you see in the awkward photo above, sat there) and talked maturely and coherently about actual issues, and even showed signs of having a few brain cells between them. Halcyon days.

And yet, even those may have turned on such things as the fact that Kennedy was tanned and relaxed, while Nixon was not.

Which is idiotic.

Why do we have these things? So many people consider them to be critical. I don’t see why. They in no way measure skills that are relevant to being president of the United States. Presidents don’t operate in an environment in which people are throwing zingers at them and watching to see how they react.

Life in the Oval Office is the opposite. First, you have time — limited time, but time — to consider what you are going to say and do. Not only that, but you have a vast army of people to whom you can delegate the work of saying and doing — and of doing the research necessary to intelligently decide what to say and do. And those people defer to you. They’re there to do whatever you say, and they deal with you with tremendous respect. They’re not there to trip you up and see how well you recover, as though you were on a TV game show.

Sure, public speaking is an important and relevant skill. But that is tested and tested and tested with unbelievable repetition during a campaign. Debates add nothing to our ability to assess their speaking skills.

I’m not just talking about the extent to which these things have deteriorated intellectually since the days of JFK and Nixon (even if they were valuable then, they aren’t now). That startling decline would be reason enough to abandon them. Basically, they’ve been reduced to something that only has value as fodder for SNL skits. Or rather, it would have such value if SNL had any writers who possessed a sense of humor. (Go back and watch this one if you want to see the potential; there’s been nothing as good since. Yeah, I know I refer to that one a lot. That’s because it was really funny. To see the opposite, watch anything from this season.)

I just wonder whether they were ever useful, even in the Quemoy and Matsu days.

Anyway, they’ve been astoundingly tedious and trying in this round — from the first one in which Kamala Harris nearly scuttled her chance to get on the ticket (fortunately for her, Joe is more forgiving than I am) to last night, when the president of the United States hurled a bunch of attacks that were unintelligible to anyone who doesn’t watch Fox News.

(The amazing thing is that many people today are remarking on how very well Trump did. Which would be astounding to anyone — especially a time traveler from, say, 1960, but really anyone — who hadn’t seen the raving insanity of the previous event. Basically, he said the usual stupid stuff in a more normal tone of voice. And for him, this was progress.)

Yes, it’s finally over. No more crowd of nobodies taking a wild shot at the Democratic nomination and trying to attract attention. No more listening to Trump rant while everyone waits with eagerness to pounce on any imperfection, any at all, from a lifelong stutterer.

If you want to examine Joe Biden’s words, examine these, and vote accordingly:

you know who I am. You know who he is, you know his character, you know my character, you know our reputations for honor and telling the truth. I am anxious to have this race. I’m anxious to see this take place. I am … The character of the country is on the ballot. Our character’s on the ballot, look at us closely.

We can now get on with the election. There are 11 days left….

debates over

Let’s replace Ben Tillman with a statue of John Laurens

Tillman

I had this idea weeks ago. I doubt it’s original, because it seems too obvious. Surely others have thought of it.

But after finally watching “Hamilton” all the way through for the first time on Disney+ (which I need to do a separate post on), and seeing more about taking down statues in Washington, I wanted to go ahead and get the idea out there, in case other folks haven’t thought of it.

Obviously, Ben Tillman has to come down. Not because of protests across the country at this moment (or at least not solely for that reason), but because he was always a horror, and there was never a time when he should have been up there, by the standards of any time. Of course, I’ll admit I’m prejudiced, from way back. The newspaper to which I devoted 22 years was founded to oppose Tillman; that’s what The State was all about. Our first editor (and in a sense my predecessor) gave his life in the cause of opposing the Tillmans. And while I don’t know all the whys and wherefores, I know my family opposed him at the time (although I can’t explain all the causes). He was my great-grandparents’ neighbor on Capitol Hill, and I hear they were appalled when he would tempt my grandmother, as a tiny girl, to come sit on his lap on his porch by offering her apples from his cellar. (Which may sound sort of innocent, but can chill your blood when you think about him.)

Anyway, that’s settled. He’s got to go. We just need to get the Legislature to act on it.1920px-Lt._Col._John_Laurens_crop

But what do we replace him with? I think my idea offers additional incentive that should make us hasten to remove Pitchfork Ben.

Replace him with John Laurens. A South Carolinian through and through, and a hero who gave his life to help found this country.

And he was a hero in more ways than one, espousing ideas that were far ahead of his time, especially in South Carolina. Does that mean he was “woke” by 2020 standards? Probably not. But wow, it took guts for this son of a slave trader to take the public positions he did back in the 1770s and 80s:

As the British stepped up operations in the South, Laurens promoted the idea of arming slaves and granting them freedom in return for their service. He had written, “We Americans at least in the Southern Colonies, cannot contend with a good Grace, for Liberty, until we shall have enfranchised our Slaves.” Laurens was set apart from other leaders in Revolutionary-era South Carolina by his belief that black and white people shared a similar nature and could aspire to freedom in a republican society.[1]

In early 1778, Laurens proposed to his father, who was then the President of the Continental Congress, to use forty slaves he stood to inherit as part of a brigade. Henry Laurens granted the request, but with reservations that caused postponement of the project.

Congress approved the concept of a regiment of slaves in March 1779, and sent Laurens south to recruit a regiment of 3,000 black soldiers; however, the plan was opposed, and Laurens was ultimately unsuccessful. Having won election to the South Carolina House of Representatives, Laurens introduced his black regiment plan in 1779, again in 1780, and a third time in 1782, meeting overwhelming rejection each time. Governor John Rutledge and General Christopher Gadsden were among the opponents….

In other words, he stood against the overwhelming political sentiment in this state, on the state’s most explosive issue ever.

I also liked this observation from a history professor in Tennessee:

Laurens speaks more clearly to us today than other men of the American Revolution whose names are far more familiar. Unlike all other southern political leaders of the time, he believed that blacks shared a similar nature with whites, which included a natural right to liberty. “We have sunk the Africans & their descendants below the Standard of Humanity,” he wrote, “and almost render’d them incapable of that Blessing which equal Heaven bestow’d upon us all.” Whereas other men considered property the basis of liberty, Laurens believed liberty that rested on the sweat of slaves was not deserving of the name. To that extent, at least, his beliefs make him our contemporary, a man worthy of more attention than the footnote he has been in most accounts of the American Revolution….

So in other words this privileged white man of the South Carolina ruling class was saying, in the 18th century, that black lives matter. Which in his day and place, was an extremely radical position.

Maybe there are other good ideas for replacing Tillman. Truth is, almost anyone or anything would be better than Tillman. I was just trying to think of one who embodied something in our history we should be celebrating, for a change…

I thought Athena was the goddess of wisdom

Athena, right, with Heracles.

Athena, right, with Heracles.

Anyone else getting tired of news out of Portland? I am. I’m also concerned about it, frankly. I think this might be the place where Trump hopes to provoke a confrontation that could help him in promoting division ahead of the election (and hoping this time it works out better than the Lafayette Square fiasco). He keeps sending in federal officers girded for war, and more protesters keep gathering to confront them, and it’s hard to say what’s going to happen.

What better place to awaken paranoia about the left — in Portlandia, in the land of the 9th Circuit, a place that his base doesn’t consider to be “real America?”

So I worry. I don’t want to see Trump get his way by having a greater conflagration develop.

But it’s interesting to see the tactics the protesters adopt. Like the Moms. And, of course, like “Naked Athena,” who seems to have upstaged the Moms with the oldest trick in the book for grabbing attention. Men’s attention, anyway.

Here’s the thing, though: All the news stories I see about her keep referring to Athena as the “goddess of war.”

Well, OK, she wore a helmet and all, and war is listed among the concepts with which she is associated. But I always though of her as primarily representing wisdom. I mean, I thought that was the point of the way she came into being, springing fully-formed from Zeus’s brow. It suggested she was a cerebral being. It associated her more with the intellectual than the physical.

Which, I’ll admit, is not what “Naked Athena” was doing, so maybe that’s why those reporting looked for another way to describe her.

But I’m not wrong about Athena, or about her Roman wannabe, Minerva. Wikipedia plainly states that she was the “goddess associated with wisdom, handicraft, and warfare.” I had forgotten the handicraft part, but in any case it’s wisdom first, warfare last. Perhaps because the Greeks had Ares and were therefore covered on the belligerence front.

That’s one of many nice things about the Interwebs — I don’t have to remember back to my two years of Latin in high school. I can look it up. So can — ahem — others who write about the ancients.

Anyway, I wonder a bit at this insistence on the war thing. Is seizing upon that third attribute a feminist thing, insisting that women are warriors, too? Or… and this is the thing that worries me… is it more akin to Elizabeth Warren rattling on all the time about “fighting?” In other words, is it about buying into the attitude that the confrontations in Portland (of all places) — or engaging in politics in general — constitute “war?”

I hope not, because that means siding with the guy who’s sending in forces dressed and equipped for war.

Anyway, that’s the kind of stuff I thought about when I read about “Naked Athena.” I probably would have had other thoughts had there been pictures, but fortunately, there were not…

Answer the readers’ questions, please! Or mine, anyway…

As a cranky old editor, I often have a problem reading news stories. It’s not the poor writing I sometimes encounter, or occasional typos, or the “bias” so many laypeople think they see. It’s this:

Too often, they fail to answer the most basic questions.

This started bugging me big-time shortly after I made the move from news to editorial, at the start of 1994. Time and again, there would be ONE QUESTION that I had when approaching a news item, a question that was essential to my forming an opinion on the matter. And not only would that one question not be answered in the story, but too often there would be no evidence that it even occurred to the reporter to ask the question. Worse, it didn’t occur to his or her editor to insist that it be asked. There would be no, “answer was unavailable,” or “so-and-so did not respond to questions” or anything like that.

I decided something about the news trade from that. I decided that the problem with news is the opposite of the one that people who complain about “bias” think they see. The problem was that, since the reporter and editor are so dedicated to not having an opinion on the matter, the questions that immediately occur to a person who is trying to make up his or her mind don’t even occur to them. Their brains just don’t go there. They’re like, “I got who, what, where, when and how, so I’m done.”

Too often, there’d be no attempt to determine who was responsible for a thing, or what the law required, or why a certain thing came up at a certain time.

This was maddening to me, and not just because it meant I’d have to do the work they’d failed to do. It was maddening because, well, why do we have a First Amendment? We have it so that we’ll have an informed electorate. And they’re not going to be very informed if they don’t know what to think about a news development because basic questions aren’t answered.

I knew news writers couldn’t care less whether people up in editorial didn’t have enough information. But it seemed they could care, at least a little, about arming readers with sufficient information before they went to vote.

(And I would, after a moment’s irritation, dismiss the whole thing from my mind — which is why I don’t recall a single specific example illustrating all this. I just remember my frustration. There was nothing to be done, because it would have been uncool to raise hell with news about it. Believe me, I tried once or twice, and it didn’t go well.)

Of course, sometimes my irritation isn’t so high-minded. Sometimes, I’m just ticked because my basic curiosity isn’t being satisfied. It’s more like, here’s a matter of something that didn’t matter to me at all as a voter, but I just wanted to know, and didn’t understand why I wasn’t being told…

Y’all know I don’t read sports news, unless something just grabs me. The other day, something in The Washington Post grabbed me. I saw that a professional baseball player’s wife had died of a heart attack. First, I thought, That poor woman! Her poor husband and family!… And I was about to keep scrolling down to the National and World parts of my iPad app (which for some reason the Post positions below sports), when I had a question, which I clicked on the story to answer.

What do you think it was? What would it be naturally? Well, of course, I wondered, How old — or rather how young — was she? Professional baseball players’ wives don’t die of heart attacks normally, and why? Because they’re young! As a 66-year-old who recently had a stroke, I was more curious than I would normally be, thinking, Even people that young are having heart attacks? And it was natural to wonder, well, how young?

But the story didn’t tell me. And I suppose that’s understandable under the circumstances, since the news broke on Instagram, rather than coming from a press briefing where there was the opportunity to ask questions. But still. For me, it was a case of, Here we go again…

Yes, I know. A decent human being would only care about the human tragedy, and wouldn’t get bugged about the details. But I am a longtime newspaper editor, so don’t expect normal behavior.

And I have this tendency, as an old guy, to think, These lazy reporters today… After all, beyond this one incident, I’ve noticed a trend in recent years to not bother with people’s ages even in hard news stories. That used to be an inviolable rule that, at least in hard news, you always gave a person’s age right away. The very first reference to a significant figure in a story would say something like, “John Smith, 25, was being sought by police for…”

But I’m not being fair to the kids. I’m just hypercritical. I was hypercritical back when I supervised reporters, and got worse when I moved to editorial, because I naturally wanted to know even more, so that I could opine. And then I just wanted to know because I wanted to know.

And sometimes I find evidence that I’m wrong to think reporters of yore were more thorough.

Lately, I’ve been looking at some fairly old journalism, from way before my time. Ancestry has started uploading newspaper stories as “hints” attached to certain individuals, particularly if they lived in the right markets. For instance, I recently received about 50 or so hints about my paternal grandparents from The Washington Post because they lived in the Washington suburb of Kensington, Md. Most of the items about my grandmother were social, such as an item noting that she had recently returned from a trip to South Carolina and was staying with friends until her mother returned and opened the house (because, of course, a young lady would not go stay at the house alone).

Most of the items mentioning my grandfather, who was once recruited by the Senators organization, were about baseball. They would usually mention that he had been captain of his team at Washington and Lee. And every time he turned around, he was attending a meeting to form a new team, and there’d be a news item about it, naming who was there and sometimes disclosing what positions they would play (he would usually pitch or play infield).

Of course, we know people back then were really into baseball, but still… you’ve got to be impressed by such depth of coverage — reporters digging up such hyperlocal minutiae going on in their communities (these guys weren’t even playing — they were just talking about starting a team!), and publishing it in those extremely dense, gray pages. I always have been. I mean, wow. This is driven home by the fact that Ancestry posts the entire page, which includes several times as many words as a typical newspaper page today, and you have to sift through the whole page to find the mention of your ancestor (which is why I still haven’t gone through most of the hints about my grandparents).

But sometimes they don’t seem so thorough.

For instance, I recently added an item about my great-grandfather Alfred Crittenton Warthen, father of the baseball player. It’s from the Frederick, Maryland, Evening Post on July 3, 1911. It’s way down on a page topped by a picture from the coronation of King George V (you see him and Queen Mary in their carriage), which contains news about a Boston rector who had traced the royal family to the lineage of David in Judea (which I suppose explains the picture). The page includes stories revealing that immigrants in quarantine in New York eat with their fingers rather than knives and forks, and one about an Englishwoman who was “Relieved from Hysteria Very Speedily” by visiting Coney Island. No, really. It was in the paper.

But eventually, I found this:

bells

And while it was a small item, I found it very interesting. Editorially, of course, I was ambivalent. As someone who hates noise, I’m obliged to feel some sympathy for Mr. Potts. At the same time, I have to think he’s a bit of a nutter.

I didn’t let myself be bothered by the fact that there should be a period after the second mention of Kensington, or a comma in the next line between “Town Council” and “Potts.” Such things happen.

But beyond those things, I had all sorts of questions, and no way to answer them:

  • I see Potts is “a resident of Kensington,” but is he a member of council? Or could mere residents present an ordinance in a way that council was required to spend time taking it up? I could see if he, as an observer, brought it up in a Q and A session, but an actual ordinance?
  • Why were Dr. Eugene Jones and my great-grandfather present? Had the fact that such an “ordinance” would come up been publicized, or even passed on first reading? Or did they attend meetings all the time, and just happened to be there? My great-grandfather was in the construction business. Did that bring him there? Was he there to get a permit or a code variance or something?
  • If they were there just because of this item, were they representing someone? Had the local ministerial alliance or someone like that asked them to be there? And was my ancestor someone who was often asked to speak out on local issues — or often did so, whether asked or not?
  • Did they object “so vigorously” on religious grounds — how dare this heathen seek to silence church bells? — or were they just irritated by the fact that the council was spending time on something so frivolous? Or somewhere in between? (I’m hampered by not knowing much about A.C. He died when my father — the last living member of his generation — was very young, and Dad only recalls seeing him once.)
  • The writer possibly didn’t bother to dig further into the matter because it was “said” that public sentiment was very much against it, and it was going nowhere. He was just reporting a local curiosity.
  • Was there a crowd at the meeting, given that public sentiment? Was there drama, and noise (which would have been hard on Potts, poor fella)? Or did the folks who opposed it trust A.C. and Dr. Jones to deal with the matter?

Today, of course, this item might have gone viral on the Web. Our president would probably have, at the very least, put out a Tweet defending church bells, and QAnon would say Potts was an agent for Hillary Clinton.

But as things are, I am just left to wonder…

One of only four pictures I have of A.C. Warthen. He's shown with my grandfather and my Dad's much-older brother Gerald.

One of only four pictures I have of A.C. Warthen. He’s shown with my grandfather and my Dad’s much-older brother Gerald — A.C.’s first grandchild.

Check out Joe Long’s awesome history lectures on Zoom!

Joe one

Y’all, I’m swamped today, but right now, Joe Long — curator of education at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum — is giving a great lecture on some of the fascinating, unique, handmade flags in the museum’s collections.

The museum is closed because of the crisis, but Joe it doing these from home, three times a week.

Here’s the link to join:

https://us04web.zoom.us/j/3124574421

And here’s a release we put out about the series:

Tune in to History at Home, with the Relic Room’s Joe Long

COLUMBIA, S.C. – The South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum may be physically closed by the coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean our programming has to stop.

Starting Wednesday, April 1, Curator of Education Joe Long will be presenting some fascinating live programs that you can stream at home.

And while we all know Joe as a guy more at home in the 19th century, he assures us this is no April Fool’s joke. He’s been training himself on 21st century technology that will enable him to stream onto your screens at home in real time.

Each presentation will last half an hour, and will be a mix of live lecture, Powerpoint and images from our collections.

Go to the museum’s Facebook page, and there you will find a link and instructions on how to tune in. Don’t be late! Each program is limited to 100 participants.

Joe plans three live programs each week, and here are the first three:

  • Wednesday, April 1, 11 a.m. – “How to Be a Villain: Tarleton and Kilpatrick.” South Carolina has seen its share of villains. Banastre Tarleton, nemesis of Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion, was seen as a monster by Patriots. And Judson Kilpatrick relished his role as cavalry commander in Sherman’s March to the Sea – when he got to Barnwell, he said it would be known as “Burnwell” when he was through.
  • Thursday, April 2, 11 a.m. – “Rally ‘Round the Flag: Relic Room Flags and Stories.” This will feature images from the museum’s extensive collection of both Confederate and Union flags from the Civil War. Joe will talk about the people who made these unique, original flags; about the men who carried them into battle; and about the symbolism of the flags’ designs.
  • Friday, April 3, 11 a.m. – “Dread of the Adriatic: U-Boat Skipper Georg Von Trapp.” If you’ve seen “The Sound of Music,” you know Capt. Von Trapp as the dour, if brave and distinguished, man whose household is transformed by his children’s governess, Maria. But before that, he was a bold naval leader with a flair for unconventional tactics – a U-boat captain, a staunch monarchist, and an Austrian patriot.

The programs will be suitable for all ages – educational for the kids as well as their homebound parents.

Check it out, enjoy, and learn!

flag one

‘That’s it! I vote we continue to be hunter-gatherers…’

That tiny square of ground is what inspired these musings.

That tiny square of ground under the shovel is what inspired these musings.

My wife is the gardener. Always has been. She’s had an organic garden going since the first time we were in a house rather than an apartment. At our current location, which is cursed with hard clay, she grows vegetables in small, raised beds.

Consequently, she just goes out to pick our food daily. Depending on what’s in season — and almost any time of the year, there are various greens going that she can go trim from and make a salad.

Which is nice.

So this year, as I have done in previous years but not followed up on it, I voiced a wish to grow something myself: okra. With me, it’s always okra.

I’ve grown other things in the past during my own brief forays into agriculture. But whenever I think, what vegetable do I want more of?, it’s pretty much always okra. Also, it’s not that hard to grow, and you don’t have insane stuff happening like smut growing on your corn.

Anyway, this year my wife took me up on my idle assertion, and — using the authority vested in her as agriculture commissioner of our household — granted me the use of one of her boxes. But I’d have to dig a new bed for it. That is, before purchasing and filling the box with bagged soil from the store (the only place to get serious dirt when you live on “land” like ours), I would have to use one of our mattocks to bust up a section of lawn.

I, of course, being a thoroughly modern fellow, suggested borrowing our older son’s tiller that he bought last year (he’s a pretty serious gardener himself, blessed with sandy soil — recently, he even started keeping chickens). My wife said all the rocks in our clay would probably break his tiller, and I agreed that she probably had a point.

So I spent a fairly lengthy amount of time Saturday bent over almost completely (the mattock has a short handle), chopping and chopping and chopping up the clay, and then grabbing handfuls of loosening grass and trying to shake the clay loose from it.

And I kept thinking… well, you member recently I told you about reading Guns, Germs and Steel? It deals at great length with what caused different human populations to develop differently, and why when the nations of Europe started spreading around the world in the 16th century, they ran into a lot of cultures that were still hunter-gatherers. The book did a lot of explanation — and speculation — about how and why those cultures developed the way they did when they did.

One of the main themes of author Jared Diamond is refuting the racist assumptions that had such currency in the 19th century about why European cultures “advanced” so far beyond those of more “primitive” people. Basically, he demonstrates that it was mostly a matter of luck of the draw — having the right, domesticable plant and animal species in a given area being one of the greatest determinants. Because everything that came later — writing, technology, complex political structures, etc. — depended on how early and how successfully you adopted agriculture.

I was convinced of the rightness of his propositions, with a caveat: I suspect there are some people who just didn’t want to give up hunter-gathering.

And as my mattock rose and fell, and as I fought off dizziness every time I straightened up for a moment while tilling the soil in a manner not far removed from the techniques of the Stone Age, I kept thinking that were I a member of a pre-agricultural band or tribe or whatever, I would be that guy.

I’d be the guy saying, Yes, you make excellent points about the advantages of settling down and growing our own food and forming more complex social arrangements and initiating a technological process that will ultimately lead to HD televisions. And I particularly like the point made by Ogg over here that if we start growing crops, we can then make beer. A good supply of beer would be nice to have while watching our HD televisions. Especially if we have developed the refrigerator. It’s an appealing vision of the future, I’ll admit.

And as you know — I mention it often enough — I’m a communitarian kind of guy. I like the idea that we would have to work together to build such infrastructure as elaborate irrigation systems for our crops — and that to do that, we’d have to have structures for cooperating such as governments. That’s very much in my wheelhouse.

But think about it: Don’t we have cooperation now, in a truly meaningful way? I mean, come on, guys — we all know that no one of us can bring down a mastodon alone! We have to work together — Ogg in front of the mastodon distracting him, Thrag and his brothers on the flanks to drive their spears into its sides, and me standing on a nearby hill offering helpful suggestions. You know, as Karl over here keeps saying, “from each according to his ability”…

And what about when those yahoos from across the valley attack our camp, trying to take some of our women so they can diversity their feeble, stagnant gene pool? We need all the spears and clubs that can come running. That’s way communal.

But if we settle down and start farming, next thing you know we’ll have villages, then towns, then cities. And we’ll have ever more elaborate institutions to direct and organize our affairs. And you know what that means:

  • First think you know, libertarians will start cropping up, absurdly claiming that they can make it on their own without collective effort.
  • Then before you know it, there’ll be a Tea Party.
  • Then, as sure as can be, Trumpism will arrive, and you’ll know the whole thing has grown decadent, possibly beyond saving.
  • Finally, some jackass like this guy will arise.

None of us wants that. So let’s put down these stone implements before we get a blister, and go out on a hunt, how about it? Who’s with me? (I go running off like Bluto in “Animal House”…)

Anyway, that’s what I was thinking while I was digging out that raised bed. And it was only about four or five feet square. Imagine if it had been an acre. It would have inspired me to write War and Peace, if I survived it…

Come on out for SwordFest 2020 on Saturday

Dan demonstrates the katana for Joe and Dawndy.

Dan demonstrates the katana for Joe and Dawndy.

I don’t always remember to tell y’all about cool things going on at the Relic Room — a client of ours — but I’d truly be remiss if I didn’t give you a heads-up about SwordFest.

I went over to WIS today with Curator of Education Joe Long and Dan Bernardo of WellWithin Martial Arts so they could do a live segment on Dawndy Mercer Plank’s lunchtime show. And it was fun. Dan gave a quick-but-deadly-looking demonstration of his skill with a katana, just one of many bladed-weapon techniques you will see demonstrated on Saturday.

That’s just one of many sword styles from history you’ll see at the event, but a particularly relevant one. It’s a little-known fact (he said, channeling Cliff Clavin) that the oldest artifact at the museum is a katana made in about 1600 that was captured by a South Carolinian at Iwo Jima.

Here’s the release about the event. I’m going to be there. I hope to see some of y’all:

En garde! Third annual SwordFest features every kind of swordplay. And it’s free!

COLUMBIA, S.C. – On Saturday, Feb. 8, the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum will again come alive to the clanging and schwinging of swords.

All kinds of swords. Basically, if it’s got a blade and a hilt, you’ll see it in action or on display at the museum’s third annual SwordFest.

And it’s all free and open to the public, all day long.

We’re talking medieval swords, Renaissance swords, 19th-century swords, Japanese swords, Chinese swords, pirate-style cutlasses, modern sport fencing and lightsabers from a galaxy far, far away. More swashbuckling than you’ve ever seen before, and far more varied.

The doors open at 10 a.m., and here’s the schedule. All are in the Atrium except for the first and last, as noted:

10:15 a.m. – “Wade Hampton: Battlefield Swordsman.” This lecture by Education Curator Joe Long, about South Carolina’s most famous hand-to-hand warrior, will be delivered in the Education Room.

11 a.m. – Medieval swordplay. Laurence Lagnese of The Palmetto Knights Steel Combat Team will present a medieval weapon and armor demonstration.

12:15 p.m. – Lightsabers! Trey Jones and members of the Aiken Lightsaber Club will present the techniques of the Jedi, including a choreographed lightsaber duel.

1 p.m. – Art of the Katana. Dan Bernardo of WellWithin Martial Arts of Columbia will show the Japanese approach to sword usage through the stylized, and lethal, techniques of traditional kenjutsu.

1:15 p.m. – “Butterfly Swords.” Keith Mosher of KDA Wing Chun. This fast-flowing Chinese swordsmanship system, part of several kung fu styles including Wing Chun, uses twin blades.

1:30 p.m. – Kids’ Demo: “How to Fight Off Pirates!” The basics of naval cutlass techniques explained in an interactive session for youngsters. (And yes, the “blades” they use will be safe simulators, not the real thing.)

2 p.m. – Modern fencing. South Carolina competitive fencers will demonstrate the fast-moving modern sport.

3 p.m. – “The South Carolina Broadsword System.” Historical researcher and swordsman Benjamin Battiste explains the unique broadsword style taught in our own state during the first half of the 19th century. This will be in the Education Room.

Local, historical, worldwide and intergalactic swashbuckling. You can’t ask for much more than that!

And here’s a video about the event. It includes some brief clips from last year’s SwordFest:

A busy MLK Day in Columbia

Joe MLK

Y’all, I’ve been too busy to post today, but as you know this was a busy day in Columbia for presidential candidates.

Of course, it was a lot more than that. It was MLK Day, which for me has generally been a rather busy holiday. It all started 20 years ago today, when the Columbia Urban League, under the leadership of J.T. McLawhorn and Dr. David Swinton, decided to do something BIG to show how much folks wanted the Confederate flag off the State House dome.

With the help of a coalition of like-minded groups, they succeeded. J.T. and I went on Cynthia Hardy’s show (Cynthia, by the way, was J.T.’s right-hand person at the Urban League at the time) on WACH over the weekend to talk about that event. Why have us old guys on TV to reminiscent about something so long ago? Because it was amazing. There’s been nothing like it before or since. Here’s a picture. The crowd was estimated at 60,000.

In the years since, the march at rally at the State House has become branded as more of an NAACP production (it was one of the organizations that helped with the first one), while the CUL has put its energies into a huge breakfast event at the Brookland Baptist convention facility. Both are magnets for Democrats with national ambitions. I was at the Urban League event this morning, with friends:

It was great to see and hear Joe, of course — and to a lesser extent Pete and Tom and Deval.

I didn’t get a chance to speak with Joe — and was jealous that my friend Samuel Tenenbaum got to sit next to Joe. For my part, I sat at one of the tables dedicated to the Biden contingent, and got to visit with Joe’s state political director and fellow Smith campaign alumnus Scott Harriford.

While I didn’t speak with Joe, I did shake hands with Pete. I didn’t set out to, but we sort of bumped into each other while trying to squeeze through the crowd back to our seats. So I did the civil, and stuck out my hand and said, “How’s it going, Mayor?” And he took it and nodded and moved on. (Yeah, I know. I just didn’t have anything pertinent in mind to say.)

Anyway.

I’m not going to try to report on what everybody said. I leave that to the reporters. Here’s The State’s story, and here’s the Post and Courier’s.

I just thought I’d share how I observed the holiday. How did you?

Cynthia shared this pic taken just before we went on her show. That's Jim Felder on the left, J.T. McLawhorn on the right, and some old white guy in the middle.

Cynthia shared this pic taken just before we went on her show. That’s Jim Felder on the left, J.T. McLawhorn on the right, and some old white guy in the middle.

Persistent traces of history: Foxholes in the Ardennes

1000w_q95

I was looking up something about the Battle of the Bulge, which had started on Dec. 16 and was still going on 75 years ago today, and ran across a fact that surprised me a bit, and that I though I would share.

It seems that you can still see the foxholes occupied by members of the 101st Airborne Division — including the guys celebrated in the book and series “Band of Brothers” — in the Bois Jacques portion of the Ardennes. Time has not yet fully filled them in. Which is fitting I suppose, since these holes were not the kind that were dug one day and abandoned the next. Those guys lived in and fought from those holes for a month before rising up to take the town of Foy and resume their march into Germany.

When I did a search for images, I ran across this one of several present members of the 101st sitting in what remains of those holes just last month, on Dec. 14.

Here’s the caption provided by the Army:

Maj. David Real with sustainment Brigade 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), sits in a foxhole in Ardennes Belgium, Dec. 14, dug by soldiers during the battle of the bulge. The Soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge fought in these foxholes for over a month. (DOD photo by Pfc. John Simpson)

That’s all. I just found the image interesting, and thought I’d share it.

75 years ago today in the Ardennes

Germans

Seventy-five years ago, my father-in-law was one of the green troops of the 106th Infantry Division that had been placed on the front line in what was regarded as a relatively safe area. There, in the snowy Ardennes Forest, they could learn what it’s like to be on the line, maybe make some contact with the few enemy troops believed to be in the area, and in general get some seasoning.bulge map

And then, divisions of armor and infantry the Allies didn’t know Hitler had just rolled right over the 106th. There was some brief fighting — my father-in-law would be haunted by having seen a friend killed by a bullet he thought was meant for him — but the two regiments of the 106th on the line were captured en masse. That included my father-in-law, Walter Joseph Phelan, and 6,000 others, among them the novelist Kurt Vonnegut

After an arduous journey east, Mr. Phelan would spend the rest of the war in a POW camp in Germany.

It was the largest land battle fought by the U.S. Army in that war.

Years ago in a biography of Adolph Hitler, I read that he hoped to shock the Western Allies into a stalemate or negotiated peace so that he could turn all his remaining assets to trying to stop the relentless Russian advance. When I read that, it seemed insane. Everything I knew about American resolve during that war, in retrospect, made that seem impossible.

It doesn’t seem so impossible to me today, after Vietnam, Mogadishu, and other experiences. But I’m glad Hitler was wrong about us that time. And I’m deeply grateful to the Americans and Brits who fought so hard to put an end to Nazism — my father-in-law, the men of the 101st who went into battle without winter clothing or enough ammunition, this guy whom I read about this morning, all of them.

And I’m in awe of what they achieved.

bulge

Come on out and help us Remember Pearl Harbor

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island. View looks about east, with the supply depot, submarine base and fuel tank farm in the right center distance. A torpedo has just hit USS West Virginia on the far side of Ford Island (center). Other battleships moored nearby are (from left): Nevada, Arizona, Tennessee (inboard of West Virginia), Oklahoma (torpedoed and listing) alongside Maryland, and California. On the near side of Ford Island, to the left, are light cruisers Detroit and Raleigh, target and training ship Utah and seaplane tender Tangier. Raleigh and Utah have been torpedoed, and Utah is listing sharply to port. Japanese planes are visible in the right center (over Ford Island) and over the Navy Yard at right. Japanese writing in the lower right states that the photograph was reproduced by authorization of the Navy Ministry.  U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island.

As y’all know, I help the S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum publicize its events. But I too often forget to let y’all know about them ahead of time.

I was telling Bryan Caskey about this one yesterday, and he was interested (although he had a conflict), so I thought I’d pass it on to the rest of the gang.

Since I already wrote a release about it, I’ll just save myself some typing by sharing that with you:

Join us at the Relic Room to Remember – and learn about – Pearl Harbor

COLUMBIA, S.C. – “Remember Pearl Harbor!”

Who could forget? It wasn’t just the “date that will live in infamy,” but the moment when America turned on a dime and was permanently transformed. We went instantly from being a nation of isolationists who didn’t want to hear about the problems of Europe and Asia, to a war machine of unprecedented power – and after that, the leader of global efforts to prevent such a conflict from ever emerging again.

On this Dec. 7, the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum will host a Pearl Harbor Day program that will help both young and old better remember, and understand, the meaning of that day in 1941. The program will certainly be about memory, but also about lessons learned.

Admission is free to the entire program.

Here’s what’s on the schedule for that Saturday:

10 a.m. to 3 p.m. – Living History and WW2 Weapon Displays. In the Atrium, living historians will impersonate a wide range of participants in the conflict, and talk to attendees about their different roles. Military equipment, including small arms, from the world’s largest conflict will also be on display. In addition to the re-enactors there will be real-life heroes, members of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. You can thank them personally, and support the work of this association of combat-wounded veterans.

11 a.m. to 2 p.m. – WW2 Education Stations. At stations within the museum gallery, volunteers will offer short lessons in basic World War II skills include aircraft silhouette identification, code-breaking, and other sailors’ tasks, which could make the difference between victory and defeat. Get your “Qualification Card” signed for the “Battle of the Atrium Sea.”

2 p.m.  – “Guadalcanal: US Marines against Imperial Japan, 7 August 1942-8 February 1943.” Fritz Hamer, the museum’s curator of history, will explain the bloody but vital struggle for the island of Guadalcanal. This is a lecture for adults while younger participants join in the simultaneous wargame out in the museum’s atrium.

2 p.m. – “The Battle of the Atrium Sea.” Kids can sharpen their tactical thinking, controlling their own pieces of the Pacific theater, laid out on the atrium floor. Will the defiant Americans or the mighty Imperial Japanese fleet win the day? It’s going to be up to you! (Battle participants may be limited by available units in the scenario.)

3 p.m. – “Atrium Sea After-Action Review.” We’ll look over the “battle” fought in the atrium and compare it to actual Pacific War fights. What happened, and why?

Come on out and help us remember the day that we must never forget.

About the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum

Founded in 1896, the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum is an accredited museum focusing on South Carolina’s distinguished martial tradition through the Revolutionary War, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Vietnam, the War on Terror, and other American conflicts. It serves as the state’s military history museum by collecting, preserving, and exhibiting South Carolina’s military heritage from the colonial era to the present, and by providing superior educational experiences and programming. It is located at 301 Gervais St. in Columbia, sharing the Columbia Mills building with the State Museum. For more information, go to https://crr.sc.gov/.

Did you notice how I slipped in and oblique mention of the Postwar Liberal Order? Sneaky, huh?

As you see, the program is broader than merely remembering Dec. 7 — it covers portions of the long road back.

For my part, I’m tentatively planning on attending Fritz’ lecture on Guadalcanal. Most of what I know about that comes from fiction: Battle Cry by Leon Uris, and The Thin Red Line by James Jones. I’d like to place my understanding on more of a factual footing…

My best new follow in a while. Currahee!

Shared this on Twitter, might as well share it here:

Guarnere feed

Top Five History-Based Holiday Ideas

big shoe

The controversy over Columbus Day got me to thinking of history-based holidays we could have, if only we thought a little harder. They’re not in order of preference, but in calendar order:

  1. Rubicon Day — OK, so this didn’t happen in America. But Julius Caesar’s decision to cross that creek with his troops had a huge effect on something that matters to Americans. It ended the last republic we would see for 1,000 years. But I’m also thinking we could have some fun with it. We could have toga parties each Jan. 10, and go around saying “iacta alea est” to each other. Maybe not your idea of a good time, but maybe we could make a drinking game out of it.
  2. British Invasion Day — No, it’s not about 1814. It’s about 1964, and this holiday would be pure fun. We’d celebrate it on February 9, the day the Beatles first appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” We’d all play music by the Beatles, the Stones, Herman’s Hermits, the Animals, Freddie and the Dreamers, Peter and Gordon, and so forth. We’d have theme parties in which we’d all dress like the invaders, and go around saying “gear” and “fab.” And if you said bad things about the holiday, we’d all say you were “dead grotty.”
  3. Lincoln’s Birthday, Feb. 12 — Yes, bring it back, and repeal this “President’s Day” nonsense, in order to drive home the fact that he was our greatest president, and is largely responsible for America being America, having thrown off its original sin via that war that we fight on until the slave states’ unconditional surrender — and making sure it didn’t end until the 13th Amendment was passed, so that all that bloodshed served a purpose. Sorry about the run-on sentence…
  4. Smallpox Day — This is sort of related to the idea of “Indigenous People’s Day,” but I actually have three reasons to mark the day. First, it seems to me that the most horrific public health disaster in human history (way bigger than the Black Death) was back in the 16th century when 95 percent of the native population was wiped out by European diseases for which they had no resistance — usually before the victims had even encountered the Europeans. Something so awful should be remembered. My second reason is celebratory — celebrating the fact that we’ve been so successful at wiping out the disease that a rite of passage of my childhood, the “vaccination” (that’s what we called it; we didn’t know what it was for), is unknown to today’s children. Third, as a warning — that it could come back some day, and we need to fully prepared to wipe it out again if it does. This would be on May 17, the birthday of Edward Jenner.
  5. Independence Day, July 2 — So that we’d be celebrating the actual day that Congress voted to declare independence, not the day that the document’s final edits were approved. This is personal, because John Adams is my fave Founder, and this was day that HE thought should be celebrated, after his weeks of hard work arguing the Congress into taking this momentous step — debate during which Thomas Jefferson, who gets the glory, sat there like a bump on a log. Harrumph…
One idea for celebrating Rubicon Day.

One idea for celebrating Rubicon Day.

Of course Columbus discovered America — a fact which, in itself, makes him neither a hero nor a devil

Look, people… If it makes you happy, Columbus was wrong, the Bugs Bunny version notwithstanding.

Yeah, the Earth was round, as every educated person of his day knew. Only low-information types thought otherwise. But the scholars of the day also knew how big the Earth was, and why Columbus’ idea of sailing west to get to the East Indies was a pipe dream.

But because he was dumb enough to insist on proving his point, he accidentally discovered the New World — and almost no other development in human history has had such wide-reaching consequences, for good or ill.

Consequently, I consider efforts to downplay his “discovery” of the New World a bit on the silly side. Such as this reference in an interesting piece by the NYT’s Brent Staples:

It also tied Italian-Americans closely to the paternalistic assertion, still heard today, that Columbus “discovered” a continent that was already inhabited by Native Americans….

Allow me to make a “paternalistic assertion.” Yep, he did discover America. And everything that has happened since arises from that fact.

A digression…

Right now, I’m reading the book Guns, Germs and Steel, and it’s fascinating. Basically, it attempts to determine the underlying factors that caused certain parts of the world to be “discovered,” and ultimately dominated by, people from other parts of the world.

The whole book aims to answer a question posed to the author by a New Guinean politician named Yali back in the ’70s. When Europeans “discovered” New Guinea a couple of centuries back, the people there were technologically still in the Stone Age. The local people were blown away by the physical artifacts of a modern society — ranging from steel axes to soft drinks — which they referred to collectively as “cargo.” Yali asked the author:

“Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

Jared Diamond’s attempts to answer the question are deeply fascinating.

The book spends considerable time on one incident in particular, back in 1532. You may know the story of how Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro took the Incan emperor prisoner, accepted a ransom from the Incas of a vast amount of gold, and then killed the emperor anyway. Aside from dwelling on some “woke” aspect of this encounter, such as the obvious fact that these Spaniards were a__holes, Diamond asked why it happened this way. In other words, why didn’t Incan emperor Atahuallpa go to Spain, take King Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, prisoner and hold him for ransom? A variation of Yali’s question.

And no, the answer isn’t that Atahuallpa was a nicer guy, or for that matter that American Indians were on the whole nicer than white guys (although again, Pizarro and crew didn’t exactly create a great first impression for the rest of us white guys).

Nor is Diamond satisfied with, the Spaniards had guns and steel swords and horses. The book aims to understand why people from Europe had guns and steel swords and horses. For that, he goes back to when homo sapiens first spread out over the Earth, and in certain places gave up hunting and gathering for farming, and different kinds of farming in different places, and the effects that had on the development of technology an complex political structures, and so on.

I highly recommend the book.

But my point is that, whether you personally see it as a good thing or a bad thing, Columbus’ discovery of America was definitely a thing, and one of the most consequential pivot points of history. If you want to explore just how consequential, I recommend another book, which I’ve recommended before: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann.

What happened on Oct. 12, 1492, was monumental, and certainly worth marking with a special observance. It changed the world as almost nothing else that has ever happened did. Where people get all bollixed up is when they try to assign moral value to the event.

I don’t know why people do that. Discovering America doesn’t make Columbus a good guy. It doesn’t really make him a bad guy, either. Some other stuff he did after he got here makes him look pretty bad — especially to someone with a 2019 worldview. But like him or hate him, the thing he did, what he stumbled onto, has enormous global significance. He did something amazing, but it doesn’t make him a hero. Or the devil.

The arrival of Europeans, with their relative immunity to certain diseases like smallpox, had horrific consequences for the native population of this hemisphere. What happened was so horrible that it staggers the imagination: 95 percent of the population died out.

But just as discovering America doesn’t make Columbus a hero (to me at least he was not), he can’t really be blamed for everything that happened to the people who lived here, however badly he may have treated the natives he encountered. (Which was pretty damned badly.) He didn’t say, “Hey, let’s go to China (where he thought he was headed) and infect the local people so they all die out.” In fact, most of the people of this hemisphere died over the next few decades long before they came into contact with whites — the germs spread across these continents much faster than people did. People of European descent didn’t even realize on what scale this happened until quite recently (and to learn more about that, read Mann’s prequel, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.)

Of course, people can play games with the word “discovered.” They can say, those Asian people who crossed the land bridge 15,000 years ago “discovered” America, or even say the first Europeans to discover America were actually the Vikings. Or St. Brendan the Navigator. But none of those events opened this side of the world to the other side, mainly because the world wasn’t technologically prepared to bring that about.

So, as a historic event with repercussions for the entire planet, the moment that America got discovered — in the sense of the planet learning of its existence and being affected by it — well, that happened 527 years ago this week.

Feel about it any way you like, but that’s the way things unfolded….

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It’s Johnny’s Birthday

Once again, it is John Lennon’s birthday.

I always remember it, and not the other Beatles’ birthdays, not merely because it comes six days after my own. It’s because of Nueve de Octubre, and that looms large because when I was a schoolboy in Ecuador, we always got a whole week off for it — while only getting a day and a half for Christmas.

At the time, I thought that it was Ecuadorean Independence Day. I mean, it would have to be at least that, right — who would take off a whole week for anything less?1024px-Escudo_de_Guayas.svg

But it turns out that it’s only when the province of Guayas, which contained the city of Guayaquil — where I lived — declared its independence from Spain. Not the whole country.

Bonus fact ripped from today’s headlines: Guayaquil is now effectively the capital of Ecuador, since unrest in Quito caused el presidente to have to relocate the seat of government.

Now you know.

Let’s close with one of John’s better songs…