Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Best of. . .

Go ahead and say it - what right do I have to do a 'best of post'? Hardly anyone even knows there's anything here to begin with, no less some of which can be titled "best".

I was giving myself the week off for blogging, but one lazy holiday eve, I was futzing about my own archives and came across two old posts I wrote in this blog’s infancy. The topics still interest me and since they are holiday oriented, I decided to re-post them today in excerpted fashion (and, admittedly, I couldn't bear not to correct some horrific grammatical errors). If the topics interest you at all, you can just go the original article for the full version, but you can get the gist here.

Excerpt from Nov. 2, 2006 – A Day of Thunder and Lightning.

"Why is Wednesday spelled so funny?

Most people seem surprised to learn that it is named after a once popular Norse (Northern Germanic-Scandinavian) god named Odin, sometimes Óðinn, Woden, Wotan, etc. His Old English or Anglo-Saxon name, Woden, was most ungracefully brought into the English version of the days of the week as Wednesday, which we happily pronounce as if it was spelled Wensday.

- - - - -

Given the precedence our culture seems to give to things Greek and Roman, you would think we would name the days of the week after their gods, as we have the planets (most of the traditional planets are named for the Roman or Greek gods and titans). But with day names our Teutonic heritage won out, and this honor is given to Odin and some of his children. This includes the Norse god of war, Tiu or Tyr, from who we derive Tuesday, and Frigg, Odin’s wife, a goddess of marriage, from whose name comes Friday. Odin and Frigg were the parents of many of the other gods.

And, of course, today is Thor’s Day or Thursday (from the Norman Thur). Let’s give Thor special attention, as he has bulled his way into our culture in several other ways besides being a day name.

- - - - -

Thor has also come down to us in a softer, more magical and familiar form who we call Santa Claus . . . . Although the Santa we are used to is a composite character, this isn’t stretching at all. Consider these overwhelming facts.

. . . . Santa and Thor are both are both big bellied, bearded Northerners who wear hats; Thor preferring a helmet and Santa a cap. Santa wears a belt, Thor a magic girdle. It gets better.

Some of Thor’s other names are Donar, Thunor or Donder. That last one probably sounds familiar and it should. We’ve all grown up hearing about Santa’s reindeer Donder. Could it be just a coincidence? It’s not at all, because hooked up next to Donder is Blitzen, their names meaning thunder and lightning, one Thor’s name and the other a related attribute. So not only is a day of the week named for him, but so are two of Santa’s reindeer as related in A Visit From Saint Nick a/k/a The Night Before Christmas. The author of the poem didn’t call the reindeer Thor, because he used the familiar Dutch versions Dunder and Blitzem in the original version of the poem before publisher’s made their own revisions.

Ah, but Santa flies through the air in a sleigh pulled by Donder and Blitzen and the other magical four legged horned reindeer. Can we say that about Thor? Pretty much yes, except they weren't reindeer, they were goats. That’s plenty close enough. But it's not all. The modern version of Santa Claus probably starts with Washington Irving's Knickerbocker Tales. He correctly put Santa in a wagon, which was soon after changed to a sleigh by others.

What about Santa’s toys made by magical elves. Piece of cake. Thor carries around a magic hammer, Mjolnir, made by magical dwarves. Dwarves? Elves? Who cares? Magical little folk who peopled Norse mythology.

Now maybe it would be more convincing if Thor ever had an experience with, say, a magic sack like Santa carries his toys in, or something like that. In fact, he did that too, though never pictured with it now in modern renditions. In the relatively few stories we have of this mighty god, he is involved with a sack in one story and a box of provisions he carries on his back in another.

You might point out that Santa Claus is a jolly fellow and that Thor was a pretty serious guy, if not in serious need of anger management. That is true, but St. Nick’s jolliness is a 19th century American creation, and the older Santa or Sinter Klaas, as the Dutch called him, was quite dour.

- - - - -

Poor dead god of thunder. At least his two boys, Magni and Modi (strength and anger) survived to carry on in the new world -- the one you and I exist in. We can imagine that it was these children who made sure that we probably all say their father’s name at least once a week if not more, just as we would this morning if someone asks us what day it is. Just tell them it’s Thor’s Day, and we are all the richer for it."

Excerpt from Sept. 26, 2006 – Read this on the night before Christmas

"Santa Claus is the focus of Christmas for us secular folks. An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas, which most of us call The Night Before Christmas, created the modern vision of Santa, and is the greatest Christmas poem ever written (d’uh), probably tied with A Christmas Carol as the greatest post-gospel Christmas literature.

Everyone knows that The Night Before, as I call it here was written by Clement Moore, right?

Actually, no, not everyone.

Ever feel like you are the only one who read a book? I highly recommend Author Unknown by Don Foster, an English professor at Vassar College. Mr. Foster has made a name for himself by analyzing anonymous literature and determining its author. He is probably most well known for correctly pointing to Joe Klein as Anonymous, the author of Primary Colors, and had previously identified, maybe correctly, a 17th century poem signed by “WS” as written by Shakespeare. OK, hard to appreciate that one – we all know that those are Shakespeare’s initials, and we can never be quite sure.

Most fascinating is Foster’s argument that The Night Before was not written by Clement Moore as everyone thinks, but by one Major Henry Livingston. He convinced me, and I’m pretty skeptical. We’ll get to the details below.

Foster’s method is combining research skills with modern technology, utilizing computer software to count and analyze the actual words used by the anonymous author. . . .

. . . .

I first read about Foster’s theory in a newspaper article a few years ago. Last year I read the book, and, between you, me and the wall, some it was a little tedious. But not the Santa stuff. That was intoxicating. With apologies to Professor Foster for simplifying his exacting research, here goes.

The Night Before was published anonymously in 1823 in the Troy Sentinel, a small newspaper in Troy, New York. Moore took credit in 1844 . . . about 17 years after Livingston was dead and many years after the poem was first publicly attributed to Moore himself.

Major Livingston, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, was part Scottish and part Dutch, which is quite important. The first words he wrote that are still known and existing are “Happy Christmas” in a 1773 love letter to his future wife. Those words will prove more important than you think.

Henry was a journalist and illustrator, using wacky pseudonyms like Peter Pumkineater and Seignior Whimsicallo Pomposo. He was quite a fun loving fellow and father, writing many whimsical poems for his children that were never published. According to his family, he wrote The Night Before in 1807-8 for their enjoyment, many years before it was published.

Clement Moore was a very wealthy man of English loyalist descent from a very old and rich American family. He was a biblical scholar and a terribly dry and pious man. He took his religion and poetry quite seriously, even declining an invitation from Washington Irving to join the gregarious St. Nicholas Society. Moore was a somber fellow, somewhat un-Santa like, and quite the opposite of the jolly Livingston, at whose home holidays were joyous affairs.

I had always pictured Clement Moore as sort of an American Fezziwig. It turns out Livingston was Fezziwig and Moore was a little more like Scrooge, bah humbing at all the fun parts of holidays and life.

Still, comparing the vivacious Livingston to the dour Moore was not what convinced Foster. Moore it seems found anapestic poetry (go with it, that’s the type of poetry The Night Before is, and has to do with that jumpy and fun meter) intolerable, while Livingston wrote quite a lot of it. The first evidence of Livingston’s poetry in this style dates to the 1780s when Moore was just a boy, and continues on for fifty years. Moore had only one in that style which Foster believes was based on similar poems by Livingston, and which is quite different in tone from The Night Before.

Foster makes two extremely convincing analytical points. The first concerns the word all which he points out can be a pronoun meaning every one, or an adverb meaning totally. The author of The Night Before used it to mean totally four times ("all through the house.” “all snug in their beds,” “dressed all in fur,” and “all tarnished”. He also used to mean "everyone," five times. Roughly even.

So what did Foster find when he looked at Moore’s and Livingston’s known writings to see how they used all. Livingston’s usage was fairly evenly split, half pronoun, half adverb, just like The Night Before’s author. Moore on the other hand used all as a pronoun ten times for every once he used it as an adverb in his poetry, and a hundred to one in his prose.

Foster identifies the usage of all as an adverb as a particularly Scottish trait (part of Livingston's heritage) and less an English one (Moore's heritage). The earliest known usage of all snug (meaning tidy) was by a Scotsman named Allan Ramsay, who happened to be one of Livingston’s favorite poets. The Oxford English Dictionary, which gave the Ramsay source, gives one other early source of All snug (by then meaning cozy), by one Christopher Anstey, who also turns out to be another Livingston favorite. Yet another early use of all snug also turns out to be by a third Livingston favorite, John O'Keeffe. Livingston 3, Moore 0. Getting convinced?

Foster had me at all snug, but another word usage was even more convincing. The Night Before ends with "Happy Christmas to all" (later editors changed Happy to Merry). Now recall Livingston’s use of that awkward phrase "Happy Christmas" in the letter to his future wife. Was it just a popular phrase, now antiquated, that anyone might have used at the time? No. In fact it was always quite rare. But not for Livingston. If he did not write The Night Before, he sure had an amazing amount in common with its real author. Not Moore. His usage of Happy Christmas or even Merry Christmas, for that matter, was zero.

To tickle you with a little more mystery, despite the fame it had brought him, Moore never took credit for the poem, first printed it in 1823, and first attributed to him in 1836, until some eight years later, and only after he had written and received a reply to his letter from the original publisher and learned how he had acquired the poem. What Moore was told (the letters still exist) would have told him that anyone who might contradict him was dead. He published the poem as his own in a book called Poems which is strangely silent as to how he came to write it.

There’s a lot more evidence in favor of Livingston (and to be fair, some for Moore) which Foster outlines, such as the use of the Dutch Dunder and Blixem instead of the Donder and Blitzen (both mean thunder and lightning) in the great poem (often changed by modern publishers) and Livingston’s unusual usage of the exclamation point, also just like whoever wrote The Night Before.

That’s all you get here. Go buy the book. It costs one penny! (plus shipping and handling, but you know Amazon has a lot of free holiday shipping). It will also move Foster up in the Amazon rankings. He deserves it. So does Henry Livingston."

We're done. Do I dare ask for suggestions for a "Worst of" post. Have a Happy New Years.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Third Annual Holiday Spectacular

As with my second holiday spectacular, I have no ideas, so, as in a Xmas miracle, I will wing it once more by giving a special holiday award to my favorite Xmas movie (and one of my favorite movies period) which I regularly comment upon in this blog during Xmas and another times.

Miracle on 34th Street

I thought for a long time that my devotion to this movie was just a personal thing. But, it is actually celebrated as a great movie, and not just a great Xmas movie, by others besides me. In fact, not that awards mean all that much (after all, doesn’t Britney Spears win sometimes?), but, sometimes they are an indication that something special is going on.

Miracle was nominated for four Oscars and won three – best supporting actor (Edmund Gwenn, who played Kris Kringle), best original story (Valentine Davies) and best screenplay (George Seaton, who also directed). It was nominated, did not win best picture. But, consider the winner, Gentleman’s Agreement (a Gregory Peck film) which I sure never heard of, and the other runner ups – Boomerang (never heard of it), Crossfire (never heard of it) and Great Expectations. Naturally, we’ve all heard of because of Dickens’ book. I was once forced to watch the film Great Expectations in my youth and was bored to bloody hell and back. Let me take a wild guess and say that Miracle has been broadcast a hundred times or more on television than the other four movies combined.

The academy is, though, but one word on achievement. The American Film Institute, which was created by a federal program to celebrate great movie making, comes out with numerous lists of the best movies in various categories, including, one for the most inspirational movies of all time. Frankly, I frequently and violently disagree with many of the institutes choices, but I do like them putting Miracle at number 9 in the inspirational category. It should have been number one (their number 1 was Its a Wonderful Life, a great Xmas movie in its own right, but not, in my mind, in the same league with Miracle). The Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, also includes Miracle among its list of notable films.

There are so many great things about this film, one of which is the cast, which includes,

Edmund Gwenn – Kris Kringle

It’s hard to believe this guy was born 131 years ago, but he was. Rutherford B. Hayes was president, for goodness sakes and neither FDR, Hitler or Churchill was even thought about at the time. He is so old time that George Bernard Shaw cast him in one of his biggest plays in the 19th century. At the time Miracle came out he was 70 years old, which, of course, is perfect for playing Santa Claus. Of all his roles, this is the one he received his sole Oscar for, after which he said, “Now I know there is a Santa Claus”. I remember him in a late Hitchcock movie, The Trouble with Harry. Although Miracle was made great by its ensemble acting and writing, Gwenn’s range of emotion, including merriment, sorrow, anger, compassion and even Xmas spirit was the glue that made this movie. I think he was the one indispensible actor.

Maureen O’hara – Doris Walker

Probably the most famous of the group. She could’ve had a successful career just in the John Wayne movies she was starred in, including, The Quiet Man, which contains one of the best fights ever filmed (with Wayne, not her). However, leaving aside her legendary acting career, my favorite thing about her in Miracle is the absolutely awful double take she does when she reads what Kris wrote on his application for the job as Macy's Santa. It’s probably not fair to blame her completely as there was also bad directing and editing involved. She reads the application, looks up, and only then does the double take. What were they thinking? According to legend, O’Hara had returned to Ireland and was forced to return to make the movie for the studio, angering her. However, supposedly once she returned and read the script, she was happy to have come back. So they say. I take all movie trivia with a big grain of salt.

Natalie Wood – Susan Walker

I know she starred in West Side Story, and she was an adorable child actress in Miracle, playing the precocious child of a mother whose broken heart led her to ban all fantasy for her daughter, including Santa Claus (O’Hara’s character was not the world’s greatest mom in my humble opinion, as the male lead and Kris Kringle also clearly recognized).

But the most interesting fact for me is that Natalie drowned while she, her husband's, actor Robert Wagner, and guest Christopher Walken (young then) were on the Wagner's boat near Catalina Island in California after an argument filled night laced with alcohol, anger and jealousy.

In his autobiography, just out this year, Wagner claims that nothing sexual or bizarre happened despite all the rumors, but, by his own version, there sure was a lot of anger on board the boat that night. Christopher Walken was aboard as a guest, the other guests having canceled. Wagner believes his wife had been “emotionally” unfaithful with Walken during the filming of a movie together. I didn't read the whole book, just the part about her death, so I can't tell you whether she had been unfaithful to Wagner after they remarried (Warren Beatty may have taken her away during the first marriage; Wagner doesn't know when that started); however, he admits always being jealous of her and believes that is just part of dating a beautiful actress. At least once before her disappearance, she and Walken had gone to land by themselves while Wagner was sleeping, although she left a note for her husband asking him to join them when he woke.

The three of them were dining onboard the "fateful"" night. They were drinking. The coroner, according to Wagner found her blood alcohol level to be 1.4, above the legal driving limit of 1.0. He says a little above, but, that is a significant amount. Walken suggested over dinner that Natalie make more films rather than spend all her time raising the kids. Not surprisingly, this angered Wagner, and they argued about it. Wagner himself says he broke a smashed a wine bottle on the table. She left them arguing and Walken and Wagner tried to talk it out, but Wagner says it was getting heated and was possibly leading to a fight (sure, I smash bottles all the time during heated arguments).

Wagner briefly spotted his wife brushing her hair in her room and he believed she was getting ready for bed. She closed the door. Supposedly, neither man, nor the captain saw her again. The two men went upstairs to talk and calmed down. She was missing from the room. Eventually, looking for her on the boat, Wagner saw that the dinghy they used to get to land was missing. It was later found after a search, although in neutral, with the oars tied down as if it hadn't been used, and sometime later, her floating body was found.

Wagner believes that she heard the dinghy banging against the boat and went to re-tie it. If she had started the engine on it, everyone on the boat would have heard it roar and no one did. He believes she slipped and knocked herself unconscious while the dinghy was untied and rolled into the water. He doesn't believe that she would have tried to take it to escape the men fighting over her because, although she had to some degree conquered her fear of the water, enabling them to use the boat, she did not like to be in or too close to the water and was terrified of dark water. However, he admits it is all just speculation.

Wagner has kept his story close to his vest all these years despite all the rumors of murder or a sexual tryst leading to violence. He says he appreciates that Walken stayed with him all during the wait and that he acted like a gentleman ever after, never getting into the gossip game regardless of what people thought. Possibly we've all seen too much news and too many movies to just accept it all on faith, but there have been many doubts over the years. I believe him, but I'm pretty easy about these things. When I get to heaven, however, I intend to look her up and report back.

Porter Hall – Mr. Sawyers

There were so many great small roles in the movie, but his was perhaps the best. He played the cranky, incompetant, pompous, obsequious and nervous store psychologist; the creep who caused all of Kris’s problems in the movie. Hall often played these irritating characters in his long career, usually the bad guy or the obnoxious clerk type (in Going My Way, gasp, he play an atheist). Hall’s Mr. Sawyers may be the film's villain, but he is so pathetic that you actually feel sorry for him in the movie when he gets his -- at least I did. Which means, of course, great acting on Hall’s part. Not surprisingly, although a creep in films, Hall was well known for having a generous and fun loving off screen personality .

Thelma Ritter – Appreciative shopper

If you are old enough, you would know her if you saw her. In Miracle, her first movie role, she merely played a shopper who was stunned by Kris, who, although working for Macy’s, sent her over to another store to find what she wanted for her kid. She was very grateful. She usually played a maid or assistant, and was her New York accented voice was quite distinctive. Given the seemingly unimportant characters she played, it is a little hard to believe that she was actually a great actress, who was nominated for Oscars four years in a row (almost the record and was nominated six times in twelve years, a record which she shares with one other actress. She is also a Tony award winner. Here’s my promise. See her in Miracle or as the maid in Rear Window, and you will never forget her.

William Frawley – the judge’s political mentor

Yes, the same guy who played Fred Mertz in I Love Lucy, as in Fred and Ethel. Here he plays a cigar chomping politico trying to keep his client, the judge, from pissing off the electorate by declaring there is no Santa.

Gene Lockhart – The judge

Not quite as famous as some of the others, his characterization of a decent, kind, and mostly honorable Judge Harper was exquisite. His mannerisms were so charming, I can’t think of a better word. My favorite Judge Harper moment occurs when his mentor, William Frawley, tells him that if he rules that there is no such thing as Santa Claus, he can count on only two votes in the coming election, his own, and the DA’s. Judge Harper says sadly “Just one. The DA is a Republican”. If you are old enough, you know his daughter, June Lockhart, as the mom on Lassie and Lost in Space.

Those are my favorites among a spectacular cast of leads and character actors. I left out a slew of them who were quite successful and recognizable, like Jerome Cowan (the DA), Philip Tonge (Mr. Shellhammer) and the movie's lead, John Payne, but, I couldn't remember their names and had to look them up. You'll recognize the actors when you see them, though. Even Jack Albertson, then a young actor, had a small role as a mail handler.

I’m not sure whether the acting made the writing, the writing the acting, or some combination, but, I can tell you this, the writing was great. I still tear up three times during the movie – the first time when Kris speaks Dutch to the little orphan girl, the second time when Doris adds a postscript to her daughter’s letter to Kris and the third time at the movie’s conclusion when the romantic leads spot a very recognizable item in the house into which Natalie Woods had run. I won’t spoil the movie more than that. It wouldn’t matter much anyway. I’ve seen possible 30 to 50 times and I still get choked up.

The director/writer was George Seaton. I’d have to say that Miracle was the best thing he ever did in his life. He was actually president of the Academy for years, but other than direct a few other stars to Oscars, I don’t know anything he did great (unless you count Airport – I don’t). I’m just happy he wrote and directed this one.

There were three small items which seem mistakes, the type of which are so unimportant in movie land. The most obvious mistake occurs when Kris is showing off his knowledge of the mental competency examinations given by psychologists, and, mimicking a test giver, asks himself the name of John Quincy Adams’ vice president. He then gives the answer – Daniel D. Tomkins, and even rhetorically bets that the store psychologist doesn’t know that. I hope not. It’s wrong. Tompkins’ was VP for Adams predecessor, James Monroe. Adams’ VP was John Calhoun, who also served under the next president, Andrew Jackson. I am curious how that mistake came about, but, I guess we will never know.

The second mistake is just noticing an unlikely occurrence. Little Susan Walker's (Wood) mother (O'hara) is concerned that Kris is crazy and might even become violent if someone challenges his Santa Klaus delusion. She knows full well that Susan doesn’t believe in Santa Klaus (as she herself has taught her) and has no problem saying so. Yet, when Kris visits with the family the same night she learns he might be violent, she allows him to put her young daughter to bed alone in a room with the door closed. Even if you are not the most attentive mom, this scenario is not likely to happen. And don't argue that she believed in Kris -- she wasn't there yet.

The third one is just me being an attorney. Kris’s physician knew him for years and believes he is harmless. Why didn’t Kris's lawyer, Mr. Gayley, put him on the stand to testify as to Kris's delusion being harmless, as he claimed. And why not also have Kris himself testify himself why he bopped Sawyers on the noggin and prove that he had deliberately failed the exam? I would have figured that one out as a first year student, and I was pretty clueless.

I always give this caveat when writing or speaking about this great movie. DO NOT! DO NOT! SEE ANY VERSION OF THIS FILM BUT THE 1947 ORIGINAL. THE REMAKES ARE HORRIBLE. HOR-RI-BLE.

I’m ending this post with a few words about another Xmas movie (sort of) with the word "Miracle" in the title -- The Miracle at Morgan Creek. I caught this one afternoon on tv and loved it. If you just don’t like old movies, well then forget it, but this '44 film has a rather unusual plot for its time, dealing with a teenager who gets impregnated at a party. However, the plot isn’t really important. The movie was just so funny, particularly a young actor named Eddie Bracken, who plays the bumbling, stuttering (sorry, it’s funny) hero/suitor in the Barney Fife mold, named Norval Jones. Only a few other actors/actresses have stood the test of time from this movie, Betty Hutton (Trudy Kockenlocker), whose real life ended up being rather sad, William DeMarest (you know, Uncle Charlie from My Three Sons) who played her father, and Porter Hall, who plays the same kind of irritating stick-in-the-mud here as he did in Miracle on 34th Street. Diana Lynn, who played Trudy’s snarky sister, was pretty enough to later play the female lead in a remake of The Philadelphia Story, a role previously played by beauty queens Katherine Hepburn (stop thinking of the older Audrey) and Grace Kelly, who makes my top ten list of most beautiful actresses ever.

I’m not going to go one and on about it, but, hokey as it was, it was also laugh out loud funny, and by that, I mean laugh out loud while you are alone, which is a tougher test. See it if you can and tell me if I’m wrong. It got one Oscar nomination for the writer/director, Preston Sturges, and has made the Library of Congress's Film Registry, as well.

Have a great holiday. I am probably on hiatus the rest of the year but will be back the first week in January to continue my reign as America’s Most Popular Blog beginning with the letters dei (and I'm not even sure about that).

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Political update for December, 2008

An Auto Czar?


Am I crazy or -- are we all crazy?

After the TARP act, allowing the U.S. government to buy up the assets of "troubled" banks, congress floats and almost passes a crazy plan to lend money to several car companies which have been failing for decades one way or another, and, as part of their genius, they try and legislate the appointment of a car czar. I suppose they used the Russian word "czar" in case anyone missed the point that this is socialism, but that is a pre-Bolshevik/USSR term. Car Commissar might have been better.

That's right, sports fans, it wasn't enough that a few months ago the TARP act literally drove down the double yellow on the road to socialism by arranging for the government to actually own the means of production, now they want government control of another of our major industries. Happily, they failed this time.

You may be asking yourself, why is he obsessing about socialism so much lately. Have I become a right wing nut? No. I didn't want Clinton to go to prison or consider the possibility that Obama might be a Muslim (and, no, would not have cared). I'm for gay marriage, I don't like torture or think Scooter Libby was innocent. But, this recent string of legislation is TEXT . . . BOOK . . . SOCIALISM which we know does not work.

I just got through scolding a relative for calling liberals communists. And guess what -- he's for the TARP act because "something had to be done."

Now hear, we ironically have a mixed bag. The supposedly conservative administration has asked for and gotten the TARP legislation, and, based on what I am hearing from Obama, will continue to be the policy of the new administration. In both cases, the main constituency for the bill is Democrat. But John McCain was also on board last time I looked.

So, basically, yes, everyone has lost their mind.

Can I go back to my post a few weeks ago when I was busy quoting dead Austrian economist, H. A. Hayek, and give his answer to when politicians say, we don't want to do this (because it's socialism, shhhh) but we have to do something; that they will suggest that the only way out of the current problem is some kind of economic dictatorship (as if that is different than any other type of dictatorship and that private property is a key ingredient of freedom.

Of course, it is very easy, in a country where we do have a great deal (although less and less) freedom, that anyone who speaks like this is just crying wolf, and things aren't that dangerous. Of course, that is how Hitler came in to power -- with people saying - we need someone to do something and he's the only one who can. Can you imagine a slide into a planned economy that didn't start with people saying that?

If you haven't read the November 13th post, go back and check it out so I can spare my other readers of going through it again.

Of course, it is all Obama's fault

Obama is not going to solve our economic problems. I am firmly convinced that this is a cultural product of our insatiable greed, need for luxuries and anti-work ethic, although he can make it worse by rigid idealogy. He is going to have to combat those who are ideologically driven, such as Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. I am actually betting he has the strength to hold them off, at least for so long as we don't have bread lines.

But, and I never thought I'd say this, he has to get his nose out of books. He seems to think that by following the Lincoln model of taking his competitors his underlings he will gain control. He probably should read some books explaining that, notwithstanding Goodwin's bestselling book Team of Rivals, that excepting William Seward, this plan didn't really work out so well for Lincoln and he had to redo most of it before his next term.

What Obama needs to do is continue to look like he is trying , and, that he is not hurting. My advice is to look at this economic downturn like a a necessary forest fire. We've learned over time that you need these fires to clean up forests so you can start again. And, things to start again rather quickly if you give them a chance. Of course, things get burned, and no one likes that.

You can only hope though, that along with the books telling of the great FDR legend of the New Deal, there are also a slew of books arguing that the New Deal did nothing but greatly prolong the (coming) depression.

Because I'm sure he reads this blog, let me explain a few other things to Obama. For one thing, failure provides opportunity for others. The market (actually markets) is not meant to be a parade of good times for ever, but a platform where people can try and make money. No one argues that some regulation of industries is not necessary to avoid fraud, but, too much regulation is like too much aspirin or too much water. Keep saying to yourself, everything in moderation. Last, if you continuously prop up a failing economy, you get a monster on stilts that can only limp along. Notice how nothing Bush has done (and which has been approved of by the left) has worked.

Lastly, and I hope you don't mind if I call you Barack, nothing you have conceived so far is going to work. We have an economy based on constant growth, and, only legislation which helps the economy produce more goods and provide more services will work in the long run. So, if you borrow from the American people (or from Japan or China so that the American people have to pay back the loan) it is not going to help much in the long run unless a sustainable business(es) comes out of it that produces substantially more than we spend in principal and interest. I wish I could say this is just common sense, but, apparently, it's not.


It was probably just after the election when we started hearing talk radio refer to the recession as the Obama recession, months before he even takes office, in the hopes that if said enough times, people would believe it. And, no doubt, as the economy worsens, and I am pessimistically confident that it will, his political enemies will blame him.

This highly influential blog (and by that I mean more people read it than will both climb Mount Everest this year and win Lotto in the same year) will protest the absolutely ridiculous charges from the right that blame Obama for everything just as we tried to do when Bush was getting blamed for everything by the left.

Of course, I hear those on the right say they will give him a chance. What they mean is that if Obama suddenly becomes an arch-conservative, they will like him. Is it not clear that this isn't going to happen? And why should it? He ran as a moderate (hah) and he should govern like one (again, may I say, hah).

I hate to say it, but, I tried to tell my friends on the left and the right, when they were busy calling the other side communists, fascists, stupid, mean-spirited, racist, etc., they would deserve what they got when the other side tried to make their governing as difficult as possible.

Obama won, so he must suffer the consequences of having campaigned this way just as McCain would have suffered for his extravagancies had he won.

So, as ridiculous as the charges are so far claiming that Obama must be responsible for Blagojevich's sins and as ridiculous as the attacks from the gay community that he is having the very popular Rick Warren say a few words at the ignauguration (so Obama can show how religious he is), he deserves it. Moreso, so do his followers who were busy calling names all during the elections. Yes, it makes people mad to be falsely accused (even when they are doing the same thing) and they get revenge.

The winner of the contest for best name-calling this year goes to a liberal close to me who described -- of all people -- Joe Lieberman as a "sneaky, unprincipled, self serving, ugly old man". He also said that Lieberman made him want to vomit, that he should be ridiculed and that he is pissed off at him. And then, and this is my personal favorite, he called him unctuous. Of course, what made him mad was that Lieberman, a liberal and Democrat, acted out of principal in supporting McCain and the Iraqi War against his own political interests. The last thing any partisan wants is for someone on their side to act out of principal. It's outrageous.

There seems to be two reasons that this name calling is so prevalent. First, it feels good for people to do it, at least for a while. Second, there is the belief that it works politically, that all the other voters are dumber than the name caller and will believe all the negative things they hear.

Sometimes, of course, negative attacks do work, but they rarely work with people not already convinced of the basic evilness of the other side. Ask yourself, has Ann Coulter convinced a lot of liberals to become conservative? Has Al Franken or Randie Rhodes made inroads among conservatives. No. So, where getting out the base is key to an election, it might work. In this election, which was about independents, moderates and pulling people across the line, it did not work.


I don't know about the rest of you, but I am really excited about Illinois' troubled governor, Rod Blagojevich, giving a press conference today against his attorney's advice about his alleged "pay for play" scheme, which I call Blagoball.

I am not convinced of anything yet. Perhaps, as the nation's most famous deputy U.S. Attorney and the FBI claims, Blago is off his political rocker and has sought to sell the office of Senate. Or perhaps the government is, as usual, going off the deep end and Blago has done nothing more but verbalize the horse trading that goes on constantly in politics. If money or exchange of favors is mentioned in these taps, then he is done. If not, he will skate to the government's great embarrassment.
We've just seen government overstate it's claims too many times to just take their word for anything.

Being convinced is one thing, of course, and being biased is another. I am biased against him because I am biased against politicians and because he viscerally reminds me of someone we should not trust. If I had to bet, he's going down.

Then again, while we are discussing visceral reactions, I feel kind of the same about Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel. He has always seemed to me an over the top, angry, partisan warrior, and I have trouble not believing he will come to a bad end.

Of course, Obama's enemies are already trying to stretch every word into meaning he or his staff, particularly Emmanuel, was somehow playing Blagoball, even though the U.S. attorney's office has said that the tapes make it clear that he wasn't offering anyway. The question raised by commentators on the right is -- wait a minute -- was Emmanuel aware that Blago was looking for quid pro quo? If so, why wasn't it reported? Big hint: If it happened and wasn't reported, it's because of local politics. Not a tough one.

Today's laugh

Having a laugh right now as the media is focusing on the fact that Bill Clinton received millions of dollars in contributions from Saudi Arabian rulers. Oh my God, he's consorting with the enemy. Heavens to Betsey (and much hand wringing). Have we forgotten all those pictures of the Bushes and the princes, even holding hands? Here's a question - would you rather he got the money, or, terrorists. Let's take all the money we can from them.

And that's the laugh of the day. but, stay tuned for Blago's press conference. Should be good for a chuckle.

Politics, sheesh.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The General - William Eaton

On 10/2/08 I posted here on Stephen Decatur, an early American naval hero who I thought was lacking in proper notoriety. Decatur fame flamed on in the Barbary Wars in the early 1800s. He lived until 1820, dying after a duel with another Barbary War figure. A sad ending for a remarkable man. If you haven’t read the Decatur post, take a look at it first as it will provide some background to the war we discuss here.

A sadder ending still was had by today’s topic. William Eaton was even more remarkable than Decatur, if not almost cartoonish in his abilities, but squandered his hard won lionization in the end with torrid drinking, whoring and public spectacles only a few years after his greatest accomplishments.

If Decatur was D’Artagnan with his sword fighting and derring-do, Eaton was Captain Richard Burton merged with Lawrence of Arabia. He was a self taught linguist, diplomat and general who could reputedly hit a target with his knife at 80 feet, wield a scimitar better than a Bedouin warrior, stare down and lecture Islamic pashas, all as if he was born to it. He successfully led America’s first significant land battle after the Revolutionary War, and saw his success rendered null by politics, which likely ultimately led to his early demise.

Born in 1764, he served in the Revolutionary War as a teenager, and, although he never saw action, came home a teenage sergeant major. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1790 with honors in the classics and then moved to the nation of Vermont, for it then was an independent country (although there were claims to the contrary by New York and New Hampshire), showing up clad in the green of Vermont’s Green Mountains, and by impressing a prominent citizen, had himself appointed Clerk of the House of Delegates where he served until Vermont became a state the next year.

The same prominent citizen, now a U.S. Senator, secured Eaton a commission in the United States army as a captain and it was not long before he was headed out West where he served under “Mad” Anthony Wayne, the flamboyant Revolutionary War cavalry officer. He soon earned his tough but fair reputation as a captain, but also as an adept fighter in mock battles during America’s first basic training exercises. More remarkably, and as a taste of what was to come, tutored only a few nights a week, he picked up the language of the Indian tribe they would be fighting (the Miami’s were not a Florida tribe) in a matter of months. This might give some proof to the claim in his autobiography, published anonymously after his death, that he had memorized Milton’s Paradise Lost at the age of 6, although cynical me has some doubts.

While training in Massachusetts he got hitched to a much older woman with teenage children, who was such a known shrew, and treated him so badly, that the marriage itself was a wonder. He managed to spend only a few intermittent weeks with her the rest of his adventurous life until he sickened, although his stepson, Eli Danielson, became his padawan (to steal a word from Star Wars) and probably his best friend for the rest of his life.

Eaton proved himself quite the soldier. Future president William Henry Harrison was Wayne’s aide-de-camp. He detailed the close friendship between the two of them and was puzzled by their constant practice of the Miami tongue. Wayne often asked his other officers to emulate the seemingly perfect Eaton, irritating them. It no doubt irritated Jaime Wilkinson, a fascinating and traitorous American military figure who I know I will one day write about, who was quite jealous of Eaton. He actively, and without result, sought to belittle Eaton and turn Wayne against him.

Once they were out West (i.e., Ohio, which was the west of its time), Eaton hectored Wayne until he let him go out alone to scout the enemy. Two month later Eaton returned dressed and coiffed as an Indian, with valuable information. Eaton never really wrote about what he did during the time, but, he must have taken up with the tribe itself, as his information was not only extremely detailed but was later confirmed by other scouts.

Writing to headquarters to commend Eaton, Wayne then disappointed him by leaving him in charge of the fort while he was away fighting the Indians. Fortunately for our hero, the Indians attacked the undermanned fort and Eaton was more than heroic protecting the small wooden fort which the Miami’s stormed 3 times and tried to set on fire. Only one American died overall while over a hundred Miamis were killed in their last charge alone. Wayne, delighted with Eaton, sent more commendations about him and made him the commander of the fort.

When Wayne had destroyed the Miami’s power, Eaton got leave to visit the capital, Philadelphia at that time, and made the acquaintance of any number of officials, including the state department officials and the secretary of state, William Pickering. Around that time, 1795, he decided to learn Arabic and began to desire to visit Turkey or North Africa. Why cannot be imagined, as the burgeoning trouble with the Barbary Coast was just beginning and almost certainly unknown to him.

Reassigned to Creek territory in Georgia, Eaton repeated his success. He went into the wilderness, met some Creeks with his knowledge of the Miami tongue, learned their language, became a blood brother, took an Indian wife for a year, and possibly, it can’t be said for certain, kept peace in a very volatile area all by himself. Not to many years later, after he was gone, the Creeks revolted at the American domination of them before they were destroyed by Andrew Jackson and his troops.

While in Georgia he also managed to make a fortune in land speculation. At the same time, his commanding officer went bankrupt trying to make his own fortune. Furious, he charged Eaton with malfeasance and court-martialed him. After an interminable time, Eaton was exonerated and the complaining Colonel rebuked. Nevertheless, Eaton resigned his commission at the end of 1796. Whenever Eaton came across a political enemy in his short life, even powerful ones, he was invariably vindicated.

Back East and while waiting for his termination to kick in (it took six months) Secretary of State Pickering, who Eaton had thrilled by naming a mud fort after him, sent him on a fascinating mission. A New York physician was suspected of working with both France and England against the States. Eaton was put to work as a counter spy and concocted his own plan. He went without disguise, but told the physician, Dr. Nicholas Romayne, that he was dismissed from the army and even showed him the findings of the original court martial. He offered to provide border security information for pay if the doctor knew anyone. The doctor did not give away anything, but paid for Eaton to be put up for a few weeks. In the meantime, Eaton asked Pickering to have it put about that he had been dismissed from the army. When a British diplomat inquired soon after about him in the capital, he was told precisely that.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Romayne called Eaton in and offered him one hundred dollars for valuable secret information about American borders. Feigning anger, Eaton claimed he could get $1000 from the Spanish. The doctor agreed to match it. Eaton pulled a pistol, searched the office and found incriminating documents. Not taking any chances, he brought the doctor with him to a local army base, picked up some guards and traveled with his prisoner to the capital where he turned him in.

John Adams, the newly elected president, immediately turned to Eaton with a similar problem. Adams feared that the Spanish, situated on American’s southern border, might cause problems. Eaton again made his own plan. This time he arranged to meet with the deputy minister of the Spanish legation, Don Diego de Rivera-Sanchez, and made friends with him, and laid upon him a different tale of woe. Without revealing his own wealth, he declared that he had no future plans and feared for his family’s future.

A few days later, the Spaniard told Eaton that if he would reveal America’s border forts to him, he could arrange employment in New Orleans, then still Spanish, for him. Eaton told him all he knew, but significantly embellished the army bases and troops in the south. By the time he was through, it did not look safe for Spain to make a move in America’s south. Eaton turned down the job and any payment, claiming he did what he did for America’s sake and did not want to be a paid spy. He reported back to Adams that his mission was accomplished. Not long after, Spain approached America with a friendship treaty (although, certainly once Napoleon came to power, it did not matter much).

As far as Adams was concerned, Eaton could now pick his profession. He did so in a way that could not but have baffled the president. He asked to be made the U.S.’s consular agent in Tunis.

I can’t go through Eaton’s entire career in Africa which lasted about 7 years, but he took to diplomacy with the same intensity he did everything else. He was never intimidated by the Pashas and Bey’s he dealt with although they were brutal rulers who would kill a man for little reason. He thought nothing of horsewhipping one of the Bey of Tunis’s men in public when he threatened an American and would ferociously argue with the vicious rulers themselves when he thought it necessary, risking his own life. While the consular agent to Tripoli, James Cathcart, was terrorized into thinking he would be enslaved and needed to be protected, Eaton sneered at threats as if he was contemplating a Hollywood movie about himself and successfully took to Cathcart’s defense.

The three North African rulers were endless in their demands for blackmail, usually called by the politer name, tribute. What one got the other two demanded. The fact that the European countries were also paying was no comfort to the Americans. Finally, the Americans sent a fleet over, but, as can be seen in the Decatur post, they intimidated, but did not quite beat down the African rulers. And, as covered in that post, the rulers eventually took American hostages as slaves.

A few years went by.  Eaton was convinced that the only way to make peace was by defeating the enemy and then negotiating with them from a position of complete dominance. He came upon a plan, under the guise of leadership by the craven brother of the Tripoli’s ruler, to assault a major city with ground troops backed by naval fire and to then march on the Pasha himself, albeit that was even further away. It was hoped that the taking of Derna, the other city, would be enough to cause capitulation.

Returning to America and dealing directly with President Jefferson and his Secretary of State, Madison, he had himself appointed naval agent (whatever that meant – no one knew) and returned to the theater with vague orders to do what was necessary to free the American prisoners held by the Pasha of Tripoli (see the Decatur article). Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one. Tobias Lear, a State Department diplomat, was also sent to negotiate a peace with the Pasha, apparently with his own secret orders.

As soon as he could, and with the Navy’s agreement to participate, Eaton was to go to Egypt, pick up the Pasha's brother, Hamet Karamalani, give him guns and money and persuade him to march across the desert and take the town of Derna with the help of the Navy. That was exactly what Eaton intended to do with one exception. He was well aware that Hamet would only be the figure head, being a useless, cowardly man, who had been in exile for quite a while. Eaton recognized that either he himself would lead the army or it would be a failure.

Off they started to find Hamet. Lieutenant Isaac Hull (later a hero during the War of 1812) and a number of sailors escorted Eaton along with 1000 guns and silver coins for Hamet. This adventure would be the highlight of Eaton’s life. Arriving in Cairo, Eaton visited the Turkish viceroy and stunned him by debating with him in Arabic the virtues of Christianity as opposed to Islam. By this time Eaton had mastered several coastal languages and was fluent in each of them.

While in Cairo, Eaton donned Arab robes, a pair of pistols and a scimitar, with which he had practiced to the point of great expertise. Cairo was a very dangerous place and his large guard, watching the daily riots, were nervous. Eaton who was acting out his greatest fantasies, was not so fearful. One day, while out, they came across a man who claimed to be an American and who was being accosted. Eaton whipped out his scimitar and rescued him. The man, Leitensdorfer, also claimed to be a military engineer, and became an important part of Eaton’s team.

His men were an exceedingly eccentric, comprised of Greek cavalry and other European adventurers, American marines, his step-son, Leitensdorfer and a host of other interesting characters and mercenaries. That is, of course, in addition to hundreds of Arabs and Bedouins. Before they even started out for Derna, they were imprisoned in a Turkish garrison. It took little time for Eaton to shock them with his Arabic, and in no time, the commander was his friend, and freed them.

They met up with Hamet finally and Eaton convinced him to go along on his trek across the desert. By the end there were up to a thousand men under him. Eaton got Hamet, one of the most disreputable characters you can imagine, to sign a treaty which was highly favorable to America if they were successful.

The entire adventure was out of A Thousand and One Nights. There was an argument with a sheikh over the price of camels, shots were repeatedly fired at them from the hills, Bedouins charged at them over the desert, a mutiny, the cowardly Hamet attempted to escape, and so on, not to mention an amazing trek of some 6-800 miles of desert, led by a man who had only been a paper officer in the Revolutionary War over 20 years before, but whom everyone now called “General.” At one point, when nomads were taking pot shots at his men from a distance, Eaton led a wild charge into the face of the bullets, emerged unharmed and personally killed several armed attackers with his scimitar before his own men caught up to him. If it sounds like a movie script, his exploits were to a great extent recorded by others.

Aside from being a natural leader and fearless, Eaton had another talent which I’ve read of about a few gifted frontiersman in America when they were exploring the country – the uncanny ability to find water when no one else could, even the natives in the country. It made a difference not only in survival, but in the ability to persuade men, who were about as unreliable as troops as American troops often found their native born allies, to follow him.

At one point, the Arabs had divided into three or four factions. It led to the stabbing death of one of them, and he died refusing to state who had killed him. Afraid of a blood feud, Eaton let it be known that either the killers come forward or he would execute two men from each group. It turned out that his knowledge of the East came in handy. The Arabs found this fair and gave up the killers. Eaton had them shot by Europeans so that no blood feud occurred among the tribes.

At yet another point the relatively few Europeans quickly lined up in battle formation when it became clear there would be a revolt. Eaton rode up between the two groups and announced he was giving up the fight and going home. For some reason, a number of Arabs quickly changed their mind and soon everyone was begging him not to leave. He agreed to think about it if they immediately recommenced marching, which they did.

When Hamet and the Arabs mutinied, Eaton rode into the middle of them and talked them out of it. Then he called over the two ringleaders and beheaded them himself. This would have been considered insane if he were leading American troops. With the natives, he was only behaving as they expected him too. I can only give the bare essence of the trek hear, but it is an amazing story, and one that would make him quite famous at home when it became known.

Eventually, they reached Derna. Eaton wrote the Governor as follows:

"I want no territory. With me is advancing the legitimate sovereign of your country. Give us passage through your city, and offer us your hand in friendship. For the supplies of which we shall need, you shall receive fair compensation.

No differences of policy or religion induce us to shed the blood of harmless men who think little and do nothing. If you are a man of liberal mind you will not balance on the propositions I offer. Hamet Bashaw pledges himself to me that you shall remain established in your government.

I shall see you tomorrow, in a way of your choosing.”

Naturally, he wrote in Arabic although he mistakenly used the Christian date. This is the reply he got:

“My head or yours.”

Neither lost their head. The Navy showed up only a little late (but late enough almost to cause another mutiny) and Eaton besieging the town quite intelligently. Between the guns of the ships and Eaton’s troops, they took the city. The governor was captured but not killed, as Eaton scrupulously and with good reason obeyed the Arabic custom of sanctuary. The Pasha had sent a relief expedition and it was defeated. During all the fighting though, Eaton was injured, getting shot in the wrist. It would plague him the rest of his life.

Eventually, for a quite a while, with Hamet being useless and living on a Naval ship, Eaton was the de facto governor of the city, and, became quite popular, as he was far more judicious and fair than the local rulers had been. Despite the fears of his men, he continuously walked through the city alone and let anyone who wanted to see him do so.

Although the naval men in the area, aside from Lieutenant Hull, seemed only mildly impressed, one of Eaton’s worst enemies, a Scotsman under the Pasha who Eaton had humiliated, said to a Naval officer who was imprisoned in Tripoli, “If all Americans were like Eaton we would have lost the war long ago.”

Sadly for Eaton, he got a strong taste of politics at this point. Despite the fact that the taking of Derna had shaken the Pasha, as Eaton had predicted, and he immediately began negotiating with the Americans, in particular the State Department's Tobias Lear, in charge of the negotiations, Lear finally agreed to pay $60,000 ransom for the release of the men of the Philadelphia who had been enslaved by the Pasha. In his mind, ransom was different than tribute.

Eaton was livid, and, when he finally returned to the United States he let it out in a torrent of which few could withstand. After he expressed his feelings to Jefferson, Madison and the Congress, Tobias Lear’s career was hurt although it continued unabated under Jefferson and Madison (note: Lear had been present when George Washington died and recorded his last words; he apparently killed himself with a pistol in 1816, possibly on purpose).

Included in Eaton's final report was this tirade:

“What have we gained by the war? What benefit has accrued to the United States by the suffering of the Philadelphia’s officers and men, six of whom died in captivity? What benefit has accrued to the United States by the death of two members of the Marine Corps who accompanied the Bey Hamet on his march to Derna? These dead, and the noble Europeans and Africans who joined hands with us in a noble enterprise – and who lost their lives in that effort – cry out from their shallow graves for justice.”

Ironically, Hamet was of an opposite mind. He had gotten used to exile and did not want to take his little brother’s place anymore. He was quite relieved.

Despite the lukewarm reaction of James Madison, whose man, Lear, had made the settlement, others sounded the victory with the acclaim it deserved. Commodore Preble, who had left the arena before Eaton’s triumph was among the loudest in his praise:

“As one familiar with every aspect of the multitudinous problems you faced in Barbary, I salute you, sir! You have acquired immortal honors and established the fame of your country in the East! It gives me pride to be your compatriot!”

Eaton became an overnight hero, but he was not one to bask in it. At one banquet he made the following speech:

“I don’t want your kind words of welcome, your rich food and your fine wines! I demand justice! Let there be an inquiry into the sorry state of this nation.”

He continued in this vein, which caused some in Congress to delay the gold medal which was to be given to him. But when he returned to Massachusetts he was immediately granted 10,000 acres in Maine (not yet a state).

Not only did he eventually get his medal, but, the nearly five hundred page congressional report lavished praise on him and pretty much agreed with every one of his complaints, excoriating Lear.

Eaton sought to have his general status solidified, by being made a brigadier general or a military attaché to another country, but for non-partisan political reasons it was not feasible just then. Dejected at the end of the war and bored, he declined and died before the War of 1812.

He had one last moment in the light. When Aaron Burr was making (or not) his plans to take over a part of the United States (I won’t argue the issue here – there can be no sure conclusion as to what was intended by Burr and he was acquitted) he made the mistake of confiding in Eaton, who he hoped, with his own feelings of betrayal, would use his talents in his behalf. But, Eaton was pure patriot and reported Burr’s potential treachery to Jefferson.

When Burr was tried, Eaton was one of the key witness. The transcript shows a pompous, angry man more concerned with defending his own honor than Burr's guilt. He did not make much of a witness, though he directly implicated Burr in treason (although unsuccessfully).

Unfortunately, by that time, he had become something of a laughingstock, for his bizarre Eastern dress, his drunkenness (formerly, he had abstained) and even for having sex in public. It got worse when he learned that his beloved step-son, Eli, had died in a duel. It was not that long afterwards that he joined him in death.

I wonder, had Eaton lived to see the war with Britain, would he have, Ulysses Grant like, resurrected himself and become one of our greatest military heroes, as renowned today as Winfield Scott and David Faragutt are, or would he have made a fool of himself like John Fremont did in the Civil War? Such is the stuff of pure speculation.

All I know for sure is this; Eaton was an amazing person, who was, after the founding generation, possibly rivaled only by Decatur in his military prowess. He should be much better known today, more so than so many others who were not half as remarkable as he was. Don't take my word for it. Take the words of one of the Marines who had little respect for Eaton when he suddenly took command, but then followed him across the desert:

“Wherever General Eaton leads, we will follow. If he wants to march us to hell, we’ll gladly go there. Last week we thought we were in hell; we spent almost five days without water. Two days ago, when we were drenched by a cold rain in a gully and thought we would drown, we were certain it was the River Styx. But no matter. General Eaton overcomes every obstacle. He is the great military genius of our era!”.

Even Madison, normally a man of a sang froid disposition, said about him in another field:

"Eaton is a devil's advocate whom I would not like to see opposed to any plan of mine. There are few men in the Congress with his ability to present a case for that in which he believes."

For those of you who are intrigued by this military genius (perhaps genius without qualification is more appropriate) there is little out there about him; even the Wikipedia article is a fragment. The last two biographies were published 40 years ago. One, Barbary General, The Life of William H. Eaton by Samuel Edwards, is one of my sources here (for the rest of them, see the Decatur article, in addition to the transcript of the Aaron Burr trial which is captivating for many reasons of its own). It is time for some accomplished historian to bring him to life in a much more scholarly fashion. Or, if you get me the financing, I volunteer to take on the job. He deserves it.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Cool stuff


This has to be my favorite news story from the past couple of years. Certainly it was the coolest, because it reminds me of a typical James Bond movie opening.

February 22, 2008

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Two clowns were shot and killed by an unidentified gunman during their performance at a traveling circus in the eastern Colombian town of Cucuta, police said Wednesday.

The gunman burst into the Circo del Sol de Cali Monday night and shot the clowns in front of an audience of 20 to 50 people, local police chief Jose Humberto Henao told Reuters. One of the clowns was killed instantly and the second died the next day in hospital.

"The killings had nothing to do with the show the victims were performing at the time of the incident," Henao said in a telephone interview. "We are investigating the motive."

With an entrance fee of under 50 U.S. cents, Circo del Sol de Cali attracts mostly poor Colombians. It pitched it tents in Cucuta, near the border with Venezuela, earlier this month.

"The clowns came out to give their show and then this guy came out shooting them," one audience member told local television. "It was terrible."

Does that sound like the opening scene to a James Bond movie or what? Who were those clowns? Intelligence officers? Narcs? Members of a rival cartel? There’s something incredibly sick, but, in an awful way, funny, about shooting clowns. I wonder if the show went on.


On 4/30/07 I posted on chimeras, mostly imaginary, comprised of parts of more than one animal. I don’t know why, but something about chimeras and hybrids fascinates me (and no, I don’t drive a hybrid). The namesake chimera itself was part lion, part goat and part snake. Here’s another animal which is seemingly a mythological chimera.

Madagascar is an immense California sized (and sort of California shaped too) island off the southeast coast of Africa. It is a nation now and like many African countries desperately trying to support its population amongst enormous odds and political callousness.

It is also possibly the most bio-diverse place on earth. Or, maybe it used to be. Geographically diverse as well, including mountains, deserts, forests and so on, it was once covered in a tropical jungle. There lived tens of thousand of unique animals, many long gone now.

The most famous of these is the lemur, suspected by some scientists of sharing a common ancestor with man. They are adorable, unique, magnificent creatures, but they are not our story. Their nemesis is.

Deep in the jungle, high in the mountains, in the plains and the river valleys, in fact in the small part of Madagascar which is still wilderness lives a ferocious beast, so small it can be easily carried by a woman or child and so agile it can leap about in trees like a squirrel. The males grow up to six feet long from their nose to the tip of their tail, has long sharp claws and most closely resembles a mountain lion with a long fluffy tail held high like a lemur.

It is Madagascar’s version of the bogey-man, keeping the for Madagascarian kiddies up at night. It is the fiercest animal on the island (yes, I know, not including man – that’s so trite though I cringe as I write it) in a land where there are almost no other non-human predators. It strikes me strange that Madagascar has no poisonous snakes and where I live in Virginia is home to at least 3 poisonous ones, not too mention much larger predators.

Despite its fierce reputation, it appears to completely untrue that this creature is a man or cattle killer. But, it can tear a lemur, a chicken or other small animal to shreds in a matter of seconds. It is just too small for larger creatures, although it could do considerable damage, and certainly kill an infant easily. Some scientists reckon it is, pound for pound, the most ferocious mammal in the world, although, off the top of my head, that is a reputation shared with wolverines, badgers and Tasmanian devils.

For a long time it was presumed to be a cat. It even has retractable claws which they sharpen on trees like a cat and a barbed penis like felines. Yet, it is not related to a mountain lion or, for that matter, a lemur, or a giant squirrel. Its closest relative appears, despites its looks and size, to be a mongoose, which is certainly a lightning quick and ferocious animal itself.

Its name is a fossa, pronounced with a long “o,”. It recently reached the western world in animation, featured as the dreaded “foosa” in the Disney movie, Madagascar. They are quite rare in captivity. In fact, they are exhibited in only a few North American zoos, and those fossas are all related. San Diego, the Bronx and San Antonio have them, among a few others.

In spite of their unusual skills, they sometimes have another bizarre quality, although not entirely unheard of in the animal kingdom; the females sometimes have genitals which mimic the males. Hey, it’s the 21st century; there are transexuals everywhere.

Like many animals in Madagascar, they are endangered. Probably less than 3,000 exist in the wild. Efforts to tag them are slow. They are hard to catch and often rip off the collars placed on them quickly.

Why do I bring fossas up? Because they are cool, and I like cool stuff.


One of my favorite chimeras is mechanical. It’s an airplane, but it can move around like a helicopter, take off and land vertically, and is just so freakin’ cool that they featured it in the movie True Lies. Actually, Schwarzenegger flew it from keys in Florida all the way to NYC, hundreds of miles further than the plane can go on a tank of gas.

The first time I ever saw a Harrier Jet was when I was a kid at an air show. We watched in awe as the plane lifted up without a runway, and then flew away until it was a dot, and then came rushing back so fast that if you blinked it was on top of you already.

I didn’t understand why they stopped building these super hero like planes that seemed like they would be the ultimate weapon. Finally, I did some research which I can promise you I never would have done if not for the internet. Here’s why they just weren’t as good as they seemed.

For one thing, they were designed with only one engine. It flew and did its vertical landing thingee with the same engine. If that engine ever failed -- splat. It was also really hard to land. Sometimes it would tip forward and smash the cockpit head first. And, since it was dropping down on to its landing gear, they didn’t last too long either.

Worse, since that single jet generated so much power, unlike a helicopter, it could only land on reinforced pads. So, if it couldn’t get to a ship or base ready for it, it would probably destroy whatever it landed on.

For all these reasons, it is the most dangerous military plane – to our own troops, and is known as the widowmaker.

Not to mention, they were just the most ridiculous fuel hogs. One version of the plane burns half its fuel in the first three seconds during lift off. There's a story that when they finally got around to sending one on a mission in Iraq, and it had to fly it further than they initially thought, they had to send it without even the one bomb it could carry on the lesser long journey it was going to make, or it wouldn’t have made it home. Don't know if it's true. Actually, during that war the Harriers were extremely active, making 3,380 sorties.

So, you won’t be surprised, they moved on to other stuff. Doesn't matter. It was still a really cool plane.

And, that's a wrap.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Homosexuality and the Age of Obama

I haven’t pissed anybody off in a while, so let’s get to it. The title should be ignored. People in the media just like to say - "The Age of Obama," so I thought I'd give this post that title. Rather, we discuss here same sex marriage.

One of the positions taken by politicians on the left and right that just baffles me in this supposedly enlightened age is the whole same sex marriage thing. You can figure where I sand by that first sentence. I’m going to address those of you who almost instinctively say “no way” in a bit. First, a little pretext.

All of the candidates (Obama/Biden, McCain/Palin) were for same sex rights, but, against same sex marriage. Out of the 18 even marginally serious candidates who campaigned, I don’t remember any of them being for same sex marriage, although I may be wrong about that on the Democratic side (not sure how Kucinich stands). It is almost certainly right to say that none of the Republican candidates favor it, as, holding such a position would be absolute political death in that party. As for the Democratic candidates, it probably would not be death; it might even be applauded by some of their constituency, but, in a general election it would be perceived as working against them.

As a rule, Americans seem to be somewhat more against the idea than for it. Just using an ABC/Washington Post poll from January, 2008, as example:

55 percent were against legalizing same sex marriage, with only 41 percent to make it legal. 51 percent were for civil unions, though, with 46 percent for it. Only 38 percent were for amending the constitution to outlaw same sex marriage; with 58 percent in favor of allowing states to decide.

Of course, there was a split between different groups. For example, percentage-wise, a fair amount of women were in favor of legalizing same sex marriage than men -45 to 38 percent; Republicans were for more against it 72/24 than were Democrats 46/50. While conservatives were only a little differentiated than Republican, liberals were far more in favor of it, 69 (spare me the joke) percent favoring it. However, self described political moderates were 52/44 against. While unmarried people were virtually split for/against, almost two thirds of married people were against it. Not surprisingly, self described evangelists were even more against it – 81 percent and those without religion for it, but not as fervently – 66 percent.

As we all know, in several states the judiciary, or, at least some judges, have determined that it is legal as a consequence of the equal protection clause in their constitution. However, in California, known for its liberal judges, the same electorate that went 61 percent for Obama, went somewhat above 50 percent (exact number is unclear as of yet) in favor of basically making the popular statute defining marriage as between a man and a woman, into a constitutional amendment, thus superseding the case law which overturned the earlier statute.

A few weeks ago I was driving home and thinking about the same sex debate. For me, it is simple. My thought at that time was that this is what happens when the government continues to entangle itself in religious matters. A few days later I was conversing with the husband of a relative who suggested that the best way to handle it – although unlikely to ever happen – was to make civil unions the legal institution for everyone , and have marriages be a religious or otherwise philosophic commitment. His thought was a more developed version of mine and I adopt it despite its improbability. I call it the Littlefield solution after its originator (with apologies to all other of those who have thought of it).

The first thing I want to deal with is the idea that it is impossible for a man and a man or a woman and another woman to marry. My friend from Montana, who has been so nice to me in commentary lately, will hopefully bashe me over this issue. But, here I stand. "Marriage," "marry," "married," etc. are words. Words have meanings assigned by people. Their meaning changes all the time. I won’t bore you with many examples, but, everyone with a tad of knowledge about language understands that words are endlessly mutable. That’s not only how we get one language descended from another, but dialects and even different ages of a language (Old English, Middle English, Modern English). My favorite is the word “nice,” which used to mean what we would call “not nice”.

Those few of you who read this blog regularly or periodically know (I mean, I hope), whatever my own biases, I at least try and understand the opposing positions, even when I prefer one over the other. But, the argument that I can only see as “it’s our word and you [gays] can’t use it” is just meaningless to me, and not worthy of the many bright people I’ve heard rely on it. They see a familiar world passing and are uncomfortable with it. They want Thanksgiving to be with Uncle Frank and Aunt Geraldine, not Uncle Frank and Uncle Morris.

If marriage right now means between a man and a woman in the majority of people's minds, we all know that in other countries, and in groups within our own country in past times, it has also meant between a man and one or more wives, and, even in some few cultures, a woman and one or more man.

I’m not arguing that words have no meaning at all. That is the default argument I sometimes hear in response to my own. Of course they have meanings. Usually, more than one and a range of meanings. But, they are hardly immutable. They can mean one thing in one place and a different thing in another. They can change from year to year. You know, I remember playing football as a kid and being pleased that someone said to me after I ran for a touchdown, "Who do you think you are, OJ?" That was a compliment then. Today, it would not be a compliment (unless they were praising me for getting away with murder).

Words have the meaning assigned to it by a group of people at any given time. If today it means between a man and a woman by a majority of Americans, and it still does, just think 30 years ago how many fewer Americans would have accepted the idea of marriage between people of the same sex. Possibly a small minority.

The same can be said for what now, almost no one would exclude -- interracial marriage. It is only since 1968 that marriage came to include, in some states, marriage between people of different races.

In fact, just look at California and Massachusetts, two states which recently allowed same-sex marriage. In 2000, when California passed the proposition that marriage was only between a man and a woman, it did so by 61 percent of the vote -- a significant majority. This year, when the constitutional amendment was voted on, it was only a little over 50 percent, not much of a majority. In Massachusetts, when same sex marriage was allowed as a result of judicial decision,
a poll showed that 53 percent opposed it and only 35 percent approved it. That was in 2004. The very next year, polling showed 56 percent approved it -- a 62 percent increase - and only 37 percent disapproved. People get used to most changes in word meanings very quickly in the age of media, never mind Obama.

Many opposers of gay marriage argue that it will degrade marriage. One gay man (and when I use the term in this article I am including bi-sexual - so, sue me) I know loves to say to people who argue so that he is sorry about their marriage. However, when I relayed that to a second man, as conservative as the first was liberal, he said that it was a ridiculous argument -- that it was in general that marriage would be degraded. But, I would argue, for that to be true -- doesn't at least one actual individual marriage have to be degraded? And, if at least one, then many of them to call it a general condition. Where are these marriages? Are we going to start blaming Mary and Tom's divorce on Kerry and Sheila's marriage?

The so-called "great compromisor," Henry Clay once said in a popular 1839 speech: "[T]he liberty of the descendants of Africans in the United States is incompatible with the safety and liberty of the European descendants." I hope and believe that most of those opposed to gay marriage because they believe it will degrade heterosexual marriages, would see the fallacy of the Clay opinion, and its analogy to gay marriage. Then again, I have long ago given up the idea that any analogy will be accepted by someone of an opposing opinion if they can come up with a hair's breadth of difference factually (although that difference is precisely what makes it an analogy). Such is life.

I disagree with Mike Huckabee, who recently said that the unlawfullness of gay marriage is not a civil rights issue. If there is a substantial right available to others deprived to someone because of their inherent status, then there must be a good reason to deprive them of it for the sake of society, or, it is a violation of the idea of equal protection. I say idea of equal protection, rather than the constitutional provision, because, we have yet to have a determination legally as to equal protection at the U.S. Supreme Court level, although, obviously, some high state courts have spoken to the issue.

However, I agree with Governor Huckabee that gay rights cannot not be said to be on the same level as that which blacks went through to gain their civil rights, although I believe there was a time it was. While there may be occasional violence against gays because of that status, it is relatively rare.

I live in a very conservative town in rural America, and, the idea of gay marriage is fairly unpopular here, or, so I have been told by gays. But, there is some prejudice of this sort all through America. It is installed in us when we are young. Yet, I know gays who walk through town here hand and hand. Some may not like them, but they have not attacked them and I have not heard any suggestions that they should. Of course, there are instances of violence directed against gays because of who they are as there are with other "minorities" (a word so splintered now it has almost no meaning except not a white male), but I do not think it is equivalent, or, even close to the black civil rights struggle. Still wrong, but many things are wrong. And, of course, I think a beating or murder of a heterosexual man is as horrible as that of a gay one.

A young gay man I know snarled at me the other day for saying as much as I say here because of a recent killing of a man in Syracuse, New York for the "crime" of being a gay (although actually, it turns out, it was a transgendering woman). I was told I was very insensitive. I disagree. Of course, that is horrible and the monster who did it should get life. But, there's a difference between a moron occasionally killing someone because of prejudice, and the police hosing blacks, or, blacks being refused access to public transportation, hotels, bathrooms, etc. That young man can walk into almost any hotel in the country hand and hand with another man and get a room.

However, it is not fun feeling persecuted and some people take it worse than others. I am a member of at least two minority groups, but have never felt particularly threatened, even on the one or two occasions when I was actually threatened. But, the two gay men I spoke to recently both think that Huckabee is "almost" calling for a Kristalnacht against gays. That is absurd, if you listen to what he says (he even believes in civil unions), but they seem to believe it and to be genuinely angry or afraid. On the other hand, it is true that there are many people who think little of them just because of their sexual predilictions and I don't intend to minimize that.

If you aren't pissed off at me yet, and would like to be, keep reading.

It is interesting to me though, in speaking with one of the above referenced gay men via email I suggested that men or women who sleep with grown pubescent teenagers who are technically under the legal age of consent, have a greater violation of their civil rights because they actually prosecuted and can go to jail for having consensual sex with someone completely capable of having it; they are even put on a sexual predator list. He said that was not the same thing because they are sleeping with someone under the age of consent. I don't see the difference. Until a few years ago, what gay men did was a crime too. Just because something is illegal doesn't make it wrong. The age of consent is an artificial boundary. For crying out loud - my mother was 16 when she married my adult father -- was he a pederast? Of course not.

For those of you ferociously angry with me, I'm not suggesting its okay for adults to sleep with young children and I am disgusted by any kind of non-consensual assault, but, I do not believe that late teenagers are innocents preyed upon by adults all the time. Sometimes it is the opposite. Fine them if you must do something, but no jail. And, I am talking about a criminal standard. I personally don't think it is a good idea for young girls to sleep with anyone. I just don't believe it should be a crime. Where the age cut off should be, I haven't totally figured out, but it is definitely not 17 or even 16. I know that if there is a God who created men and women, he (or she) already determined that it is puberty.

And those who think it is worse for, say, a 65 year old man to sleep with a 16 year old girl, than it is for a 19 year old man to do the same; you are exhibiting agism, no differently than you would be if you felt that older people should be refused work they are just as capable of doing as younger people just because of their age.

And now, dear reader, as the Emperor in Star Wars, Episode VI said: "Good, I can feel your anger. I am defenseless. Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred and your journey towards the dark side will be complete!"

Thursday, November 20, 2008

It's all about the pictures

I don't know. I wrote one and a half articles this week for the blog and neither satisfied me, so I'm changing course. One was just some thoughts and the half was political philosophy. Did the research, but didn't really write it. The first was too whimsical for my mood and the second, well, I've been writing too much of that lately. And, if you look at the subtitle to my blog, it's My thoughts - what else? So why don't I just write about what's been on my mind -- THE PICTURES, BABY.

It has been unbelievable around here lately here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I've been promised by any number of locals this Spring/Summer, that if I thought it was pretty then, just wait until the Fall.

As happy as I am with these photo's, I have to admit, they don't do it justice. For that you need eyes and 360 views. Even the colors, bright as they seem here, are much richer still in person. But, they are still amazing.

Here's my secret for taking great pictures in four easy steps. Get a good camera, find something pretty, point the camera and click the big button on top. I can't beleive people actually call themselves photographers and make money off this. I mean, did they create the light and the leaves.

These first few are of the mountain in my backyard and most of the shots are standing there going, wow, look at this. The first is almost a Rorschack test. I know it sounds strange, but I see kissing.

I moved to this new place a little uphill from the old ones, but my views improved dramatically. As soon as I moved in I made it a point to remember to look outside for the sunset every night when it was setting over the distant mountains southwest of me. Most nights, it was a very good idea.

Three things make a great sunset - not too much sun (too glary), clouds (reflection) and offsetting stuff (like mountains or water [more reflections]). Clouds though, are definitely my favorites. Check these babies out.

Sunrises are kind of nice too. I love this one on the left as the sun came over a lake near the the strangely named Peaks of Otter (there are no otters around here).

Some required animal shots and then were almost home.

Just some fall stuff and we are done.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .