Thursday, October 30, 2008

Beating up on Martin Luther King, Jr. in public

Why is it that so many famous people said or wrote things that they turn out not to have said or written at all? That subject is a blog post in itself. Sometimes when it turns out that someone did say the things they were supposed to have said, it also turns out that someone else said it first. Sometimes we care and sometimes we don’t, often based on how much we like the person who “lifted” someone else's work.

Who knows why politicians and authors use these quotes without giving credit to the ones who thought of it. Maybe they forgot where they heard it. A number of times I have had people quote me to me, and I usually just laugh to myself because why would they do it if they have not forgotten where they heard it. Perhaps we all do the same thing, and, though we’d like to think that we didn’t, the likelihood is that we do.

But chatting with your friends does not require the same discipline as writing a book. Depending on the venue in which you are speaking or writing, there are different rules for plagiarism. For example, when I post here I do my best to say from whom I’m quoting but I don’t do actual footnotes. And, I don’t always report all my sources. I prefer to use a number of sources, so that I’m not just writing a book report and I try and write about things that I know a lot about so that I can keep the fact checking down to a minimum. But, this is a blog, which is something like a cross between an opinion piece and a conversation as far as I’m concerned, and too new to have firm rules. If anything they lean in the direction of no or rare sourcing. So, my own internal rules are that quotes should get attributed as do original ideas (at least I try). Sometimes I’ll list my sources in general, but often I don’t (and, don’t remember where I learned which fact from anyway).

It is the same thing with op-eds or opinion pieces in newspapers or the babble we hear from pundits on television. They don’t bother to tell us where they get their information from for the most part, direct quotes being an exception. Papers know that if they fill up the article with citations, few would read it. A television documentary is much the same. Footnotes are often up there with my favorite part of a book, but, I acknowledge the unusualness of this preference. For most people, it’s just too boring and they don’t even read them.

So, just as an example, why was it a big deal about Joe Biden swiping a little bit of a speech from a British politician when he last ran for president? Well, Biden kind of made it sound like the Brit’s life was his own, and that’s another thing entirely. It was probably overblown, though. It seems like he actually did give the other politician, Neal Kinnock, credit a number of times in earlier speeches. He just neglected, it appears, that once, which, could be an oversight in the heat of the speech. Still, unfortunately for him, presidential candidates get hard scrutiny, particularly from the other side. It has not been deemed such a demerit that it has stopped him from running for VP this time around.

What if Biden, or another speaker, had extensively co-opted someone else’s stuff? Say it was in a speech for which he got a lot of credit. Can we just refer to Picasso who (possibly) said – “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” He may have understood more than the rest of us. But, wouldn’t it be right for the speech maker to tell everyone what his sources were? Wouldn’t it be wrong not to? If Churchill had lifted his “We shall fight on the beaches . . . .” refrain from, say, Kipling (he didn't), it would have been appropriate to let people know, at least by saying –“As the great patriot, Rudyard Kipling, wrote . . . .” or something like that. Even if he didn’t say it in his speech, for the sake of fluidity, he might have said it later on.

This year was the 45th anniversary of one of the most important speeches in U.S. history, Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech made in Washington, D.C. It was a brilliant speech, partially written out and partially ad-libbed by Dr. King, but it is widely known that he re-used material from previous speeches, and certainly, no one would disparage that. It is probably safe to say that it is generally deemed one of the great speeches in American history, perhaps in the same league with the much shorter Gettysburg Address.

It might surprise though, that the Reverend King got an awful lot of the speech from other sources. An awful lot. For one lesser thing, the speech made use of Biblical quotes. Quoting the Bible is sometimes an exception to the usual sourcing rules, as are quotes from Shakespeare. It’s not that they aren’t worthy of citation, it’s just that they are so familiar, they don’t need it. References to walking through “the Valley of Death” or “To be or not to be . . .” probably fit this description.

However, although King’s followers or church going compatriots may have been familiar with where these quotes came from, many, perhaps most people, were not. To be fair, King was so deeply versed in the Bible from childhood, and had such reasonable expectations that those who regularly listened to his speeches were part of the movement and familiar with them too, that he might genuinely expect most people would know them. One of these quotes was from Amos (“[W]e will not be satisfied until ‘justice (rolls) down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’” and also from Isaiah (“’Every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight . . . .”

It can even be argued that as a preacher, he regularly quoted the Bible in his sermons and could do so with impunity. I only use it to introduce the topic, as it might mean something more to you, when you hear the rest.

Possible sources for two key portions of the speech might surprise you. Take this part of King’s speech, so familiar to us, that you will recognize it instantly:

“[F]rom every mountainside, let freedom ring. Not only from the Green Mountains and the White Mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire; not only from the Catskills of New York; but from the Ozarks in Arkansas, from the Stone Mountain in Georgia, from the Great Smokies of Tennessee and from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia—Not only for the minorities of the United States, but for the persecuted of Europe, for the rejected of Asia, for the disfranchised of South Africa and for the disinherited of all the earth . . . from every mountain side, let freedom ring.”

Actually, I was setting you up. That wasn’t King. It was Archibald Carey, another preacher and civil rights leader who gave that speech at the 1952 Republican convention (remember, the Republicans were the party of civil rights from Lincoln through 1964 when the world turned upside down); that is, nearly a decade before King’s great speech.

To be perfectly fair, in another speech King gave later on, he noted he was quoting or paraphrasing a famous orator, but he didn’t say who. Apparently, he did not think it important. But, if we apply the standard leveled against Biden (who almost always directly noted that he was quoting Kinnock) to King, he not only comes up short, he dramatically does so. Read the speeches together – they both merge the high flying lyrics to America together with the refrain Let Freedom Ring. Some King biographers are coy about this (Taylor Branch asserts it definitely) and suggest that this is only King’s possible source. It is hard to believe differently.

King had actually been using Carey’s idea (slightly changing the words) for about seven years at the time of his Washington, D.C., "I have a Dream speech". However, Carey, a lawyer, judge, alderman, pastor, orator, etc., from Chicago, outlived King by about thirteen years, yet never seems to have complained. Maybe he was proud of his contribution. Certainly they had met. In fact, Carey, who had managed to charm himself out of FBI's scrutiny by flattering Hoover personally and having his and his family's picture repeatedly taken with him, also arranged for King to meet with Hoover. It did not have the same result.

Even more famous is King’s refrain, “I have a dream” which one would expect was entirely original. It is probably not, but in this case, it is possible that King may not have remembered where it came from either. According to Dorothy Cotton, a King intimate who is still alive, she had told Dr. King that she heard a college kid (possibly civil rights worker Kathleen Conwell) praying who used that refrain and even the walking hand in hand imagery. King immediately began using it in his speeches.

It is also possible that he heard or was told about another civil rights worker named Prathia Hall, deceased only a few years now, who used the phrase in ’62. King was deeply impressed by the young Hall, whose father was also a preacher (her later profession) and once said “Prathia Hall is the one platform speaker I would prefer not to follow.” That’s like Sinatra saying he didn’t want to follow you on stage. But maybe he did not want to follow her on stage because she might steal his thunder.

But, I need to add here that others say King had already used “I have a dream” before ‘62 and I have simplified a deeper conversation that can be found in much more detail elsewhere. Personally, Dorothy Cotton’s version seems most credible to me.

Admiration for Dr. King is so strong among many people and might be so put off by this post, that it is necessary to add a last fact which deals with the type of writing in which the rules of plagiarism have been crystal clear. It may change your perspective. King received his doctorate in philosophy from Boston University in 1955. Undoubtedly, the school was very proud. Yet in 1991, after a review by four scholars, it was concluded unanimously by them that “[t]here is no question but that Dr. King plagiarized in the dissertation by appropriating material from sources not explicitly credited in notes, or mistakenly credited, or credited generally and at some distance in the text from a close paraphrase or verbatim quotation."

Uh oh. The school did not posthumously rescind its degree, but, a letter was placed in his dissertation, so that anyone who read it would know. Clearly, when considering whether King might have intentionally plagiarized Carey and others, this verified plagiarism changes our perspective.

As with the Churchill example above, there was no reason to cite in the middle of an inspirational speech. But, King lived another 5 years and could have let us know.

But, don’t think I’m here to trash King. That’s not the point. King is a genuine American hero. He was a great man of remarkable courage, character and principle and we are a much better country because of him. But, I am also a believer in not letting anyone become too much of a cult figure. And, I do not believe that we should necessarily lessen the accomplishments of great men and women in our minds because of relatively minor faults. Notice, though, that last sentence is certainly qualified.

Plagiarism was certainly a King flaw, and we can’t just excuse it, but, overall, it does not significantly reduce a speech that can still make us shed tears. Nor does it make much of a dent in his heroic and inspirational life story. What it does for me, I hope, is help me consider a “great man” in a more realistic way.

It would be a little silly if I wrote all this about plagiarism and didn't tell you my main sources. There were two main ones, Drew Hansen' The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and The Speech that Inspired a Nation, a short, but well researched and excellent book, and, Taylor Branch's Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years: 1963-1965, regrettably, the only volume of the deservingly celebrated trilogy I have read yet. I am not a big Michael Eric Dyson fan, but I also read the part of his Debating Racism, which includes a discussion among him, Taylor Branch and Tavis Smiley on King that leads to substantially the same conclusions about his sources.

And all of it confirms my original thesis. Almost no one said what they said, and, if they did say it, someone else said it first.

Friday, October 24, 2008

I'm a little embarrassed to say this, but

I'm a little embarrassed to say this, but, I get embarrassed easy. And, I should. I have had more embarrassing things happen to me than I could shake a sorry stick at. So, because top ten lists are so appealing to me you now get treated to the top ten most embarrassing moments in my life, whittled down from the top 1000. In fact, there are so many, I'm going to just have to do the school years right now. They are in chronological order, not order of greatest embarrassment.

The only problem with this daring expose of myself is that you are going to think I am a freak by the time I finished. Follow now the ghost of David's past:

Number ten: I am eight years old. I am in Summer camp. Not feeling real confident about myself as I am realizing that my family, including me, are considered a little weird (I actually overheard a group of counselors discussing this). But, I do have something in my favor. I'm considered smart. That's not so bad, right (although, at camp it soon became a stigma I didn't handle well for the rest of my life)?

We have a camp spelling contest. I am wowing them. I spell "b-r-a-i-n" and they all go "Oooooh". Everyone is eliminated except me and and one nice little girl. She leans over to me and says "You know you are going to win." My head swelled a little bit. I was a pretty good speller for an eight year old. Recognition.

We each spell a few easy words. Then, "David, spell 'H-o-o'". That was easy. I think I actually pictured an owl on a branch and a little bubble coming out of its beak with "H-o-o" coming out of it. So, I spelled it.

"No," he says, "David, 'Hoooooo.'" What was up with him? So, I spelled it again. Happily, I recall. "No," he says. What? I'm thinking. It is her turn. She says "W-h-o". That bitch. Actually, to tell the truth, the sweet little girl actually turned to me and said, "You know your still a better speller than me." Nothing so profound as eight year old mortification.

Number nine: A memory from my childhood. It's grade school. I'm in a class filled with future valedictorians, Ivy Leaguers, brainiacs, Professor Perrywinkles and Poindexters. Ironically, they've put me in this class thinking I'm going to fit in, when, I've already pretty much set a course of not doing a damn thing in school as long as I can get away with it (and that lasted through law school).

We are assigned a science project. Understandably, I spent a month or so not doing anything. The night before it is due, I make the mistake of mentioning to my mom that I have a project. I was young and still prone to doing dumb things like that. She insists that I do SOMETHING whereas I'm prepared to do NOTHING. She wins because I still need a place to live.

Of course, what can you do in one night? Eventually, we (meaning she) settle on an elevator made from a paper milk carton. That's right. An elevator milk carton. I make one (or she did -- I can't remember everything). I go to school the next day. One kid made a working volcano. Another made a working diarama of an atom. You get the idea. Somehow, I'm last. Everyone is staring at me. Slowly, and with exquisite anguish, I remove the milk carton elevator from the brown grocery back I brought it in.

I crack up. The teacher cracks up. The entire class cracks up. I am completely mortified, but, fortunately, it was so freakin' funny I and many others actually had tears in our eyes. I have been embarrassed before, but this is the first of the great ones.

Number eight: Seventh grade. Junior high. So many more people to be embarrassed in front of.

I take french. My french teacher is thirty years old (my imaginary target age group) and really cute. I have my first crush and she is the lucky lady.

Unfortunately, I am also the worst student in the class. One day she calls me up and in front of everyone accuses me of faking illness to miss a test. Now, to paraphrase Harry Chapin - another kid might have been angry, another kid might have been sad -- I cried.

Yup. Seventh grade and I cry in front of my class. I'm cringing right now thinking about this. Here was the first woman I like and she is not only mad at me but she is questioning my integrity. Plus, I'm a bit of a cry baby (this actually cured me of that until my late 30s and 40s where I now get misty at every movie -- even comedies).

I do the walk of shame back to my seat and everyone is staring at the baby crying. There is a kid in the class who lived on my block. Never really liked him, although, of course, we were friends. He says outloud - "He cries all the time." Thanks, buddy. That makes it so much better.

This one was not funny. It really humiliated me.

Number seven: I'm a little fuzzy on this one. We are in high school, tenth grade, to be exact. I am still afraid of girls. Not literally afraid, just painfully shy afraid. A girl talking to me makes me stutter and possibly drool and not just because I'm excited. I'm also horribly awkward and repulsive to myself and drooling just happens when you least want it to.
The teacher announces that we have to team up with a partner and dissect a worm. Hmmm. The person sitting at the table with me is a girl. I've known her since kindergarten or first grade - something like that. Maybe I've spoken to her once to torture her in second grade. I think she has already teased me about being shy. I'm really more into girls in their 20s and 30s at the time (not that I'm getting them), but, I have to admit, she is really cute in a high school sort of way. Which, of course, makes me feel really shy and anxious about the project.
I take the worm out of the bottle. I move it slightly in her direction. She screams as loud as possible. I'm talking Megadeath loud. Everyone stares at us. Other than girls, having everyone concentrating on me makes me next most embarrassed. A friend, sitting behind me, says loudly. "Get over it, David, you have to talk to a girl sometime." Much laughter.
It gets worse. If having to work with a girl, having her scream, having everyone stare at me and having my friend point out my awkwarness with girls, isn't bad enough, the teacher now yells at my friend, seemingly to emphasize that not only am I a total dork, but that I can't even defend myself. Nice.
Number six: It's eleventh grade. I am in some class or another. My seat is between two female friends of each other, both who are normally cool with me and who often talk past me to one another. As usual, I had brought my Silly Putty to school with me (yes, I realize that Silly Putty is not appropriate for a boy in eleventh grade, but, you see what I'm talking about).
What do I do with the Silly Putty? I fold it around my thumb in my pocket and then seal the hollow ball, creating an air pocket. Then, I pop it and do it again. And, again. I guess someone sitting next to me might think I am playing with something else, but, I know what I'm doing and who would be looking at me anyway?
Suddenly, the teacher is standing in front of me. She holds out her hand and says "What are you playing with? Give it here." Remember the part about me not liking everyone paying attention to me. So, I take out my Silly Putty and give it to her.
Of course, I am now an eleventh grade boy who has just taken Silly Putty out of his pocket and given it to the teacher. There are so many levels to be embarrassed with here. I'm playing with something in class. I am actually playing with a child's toy. I am being singled out and remonstrated against in front of everyone. And . . .
. . . of course, there is worse. The two girls on either side of my, best friends, convulse in hysterics. You can say I'm paranoid, but I don't think they were laughing because I was playing with Silly Putty. They were laughing because they had been sure I was playing pocket pool, if you get my drift. You can die so many ways without actually dying. Oh, that was bad. Of course, it also made me laugh.
Number five: It's junior year. I politely say to my grandmother that I like her mink coat. That's probably the one time I ever said anything like that as I definitely wasn't the best grandson in the world, being awkward with my relatives too.
So, of course, she buys her shy, stupid, uncomfortable grandson, a fake full length mink coat. If you are lost, let me point out some facts to you. I was in high school. I had already failed every test of fashion or even caring what I wore. But, one thing I know. Wearing a mink coat, even a fake one, is death in high school. Think about it.

So, I feel like I have to wear it to school. Why? I still can't figure that one out. What was I thinking? My grandmother didn't live with us. She wouldn't know. I think the answer to this riddle is -- guilt. I felt guilty not wearing the coat. Also, I think I felt a little self loathing about caring what anyone else thought about it.

That didn't mean I was crazy. I didn't wear it into the school. I would take it off long before I got there. That actually wasn't that weird for me. I wasn't just shy, I was also strange. I often would take my coat off before I got to school so when I got outside I didn't feel too warm. Lost in the logic? But, if drove anywhere with me nowadays and watched me turning the heat or a/c on and off and opening and closing the windows, you'd understand better. I still do the taking off the coat thing sometimes.

So, one day, it's I'm walking to school (yeah, people did that in my day up to a mile away) wearing my unbelievably faggy mink coat. It's raining. My neighbor's father pulls up in his taxi and offers me a ride. I have to say yes. One, it's raining, which normally doesn't mean much to me, but, you know, the coat. And two, I don't know how to say no. One thing I do know is that it would be mortifying to drive up to school in a taxi. Why? Because I'm in high school, and I and everyone else there are idiots, that's why. I will just ask him to drop me off a block away. I'll take my coat off and curl it up as usual and . . . .

He says "Don't be silly" and insists on driving me up the front driveway right smack in front of the school. Now, there are a lot of people I don't want to see me getting out of a cab or wearing a mink coat. The amazing thing was, that even though it was raining, so many of those people were standing in front of the school, getting out of their parents' normal cars and wearing normal clothes. And there I am, pulling up in a cab with my mink coat on like young Liberace. Oy.

Last time I wore the coat. Guilt schmuilt. I was mortified.

Number four: This one might seem mild, and, I guess it was. But, this one was one of my funniest embarrassing moments. The Summer before twelfth grade I finally am able to get myself into a R rated movie.

So, there I am one night, out at the movies with a friend. We walked about a mile or so to the Raceway Theatre. I say walked, because this was before the time when all kids, at least on Long Island, get a ride everywhere. We were standing in the crowded lobby. I say crowded because this was before the days before someone got the idea to make multiplex's with huge lobbies and you used to pile in.

We were crushed up against the refreshment stand. I reached over and took a handful of popcorn out of the carton and put it in my mouth. Out of the corner of my eye I see some shrew glaring at me as if I touched her inappropriately. I ignore her and took another handful. "Do you mind?" she shrieks. Not my popcorn. Her popcorn. Now that was embarrassing, but so funny I'm cracking up right now.

Number three : Another friend (his name matters - "Rick") and I are at his house after school in twelfth grade. We are boys. So, we are doing what comes naturally for us. We were taking darts and throwing them at each other. We weren't really trying to hit each other. We weren't crazy or mad at each other. Just unbearably stupid in the way young boys are.

So, there I am. I'm hiding behind his bedroom door and he has a dart in his hand. I believe it was red and pointy. I'm opening and closing the door so that he will throw and I will be able to collect the dart when it lodges in the door. He lobs the dart. I see it fly through the air. I don't close the door in time. The dart sails over my head.

From just behind me, I hear of familiar voice -- "Thanks, Rick. Thanks a lot." I jump into the room and fly onto his bed. I have to say before I go on, I swear this is true. The door opens and his mother is standing in it. We are cringing. In her shoulder stands a dart. It is quivering up and down. She approaches the bed and lets loose with a string of invective that some crazy court these days might find abusive. Personally, I think it was big of her not to kill us both. But, as long as she screams that dart is bobbing up and down.

Everyone of a certain age remembers the torture of needing to laugh uproariously when circumstances didn't permit it. Like in church or school. This was one of those times. I literally, not making this up, bit a hole through my bottom lip. It was bleeding. As soon as she left the room we dissolved into laughter.

Of course, you may be saying what has this to do with embarrassment. You know, nothing much, but I had to tell this story and there was at least something like embarrassment. P.S. The next week Rick continues the game outside with another friend. This time, he hits his mother's car tire and deflates it. I swear.

Number two: Strangely, this is another coat story. I'm in college now. I talk to girls. I even have a girlfriend. But, that doesn't mean I'm not attracted to other girls and hope they are attracted to me. I meet a few and have the usual flirtations. Meet one girl and think she is really cute. I make what I consider some conversation. I don't think she is interested.

I'm walking across campus. As usual, I am peeling off my coat (not mink or fake mink either) a little bit before I get to the building I'm going to. I know it's strange, but just go with it. I'm wearing a tight red sweater I actually think I look pretty good in (and that in itself is a rarity). I see the girl I like come around a corner of the building and I look at her thinking, "Hey, baby. Check me out in my tight red sweater." She and her friend take one look at me and immediately convulse in laughter. Hysterical laughter.

My mind races to come up with a reason they are laughing, but, the rational bastard inside of me has to acknowledge they are laughing at me, and, I suppose, my goddamn ^&;$#@ red sweater. Rats. I think my hair is standing on end.

Number one: In law school I am actually not considered that weird. For some reason, I was weird in grade school and college, but, in law school, some people considered me "unique," although that may have just been a nicer way to say weird. When I became a professional lawyer, I went back to weird again, but, there are lots of weird lawyers. Trust me. And, it doesn't matter as long as you can do your job.

I make some friends, more in one day than all through college. One, who is still my friend to this day, tells me that basketball is his sport. I say, it's my sport too. I never played on the school team and certainly wasn't about to try out, but I felt pretty comfortable playing back then. In college I would play every once in a while during the summer. Not so much though.

We organized a pick up game. My friend played. So did I. I sucked. Whatever I could do in high school I could no longer do. This one may seem mild compared to the others, but, it was pretty embarrassing, if only to me. It was the start of an adult lifetime of finding out I couldn't physically do what I used to, and had prided myself on.

That's it. Pretty mortifying, huh? Somehow, I actually enjoyed my childhood (minus the actual school part), actually quite a bit. Denial does wonders.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Damn the cyberspace - abbreviated Political Update for October, 2008

You may have noticed I haven't posted last week or this. You see, I've moved and I am at the mercy of the worst big company since Krupp provided armor and cannon for the Nazis - Verizon. When they get around to getting me that filter (and that is a huge "if") my problem "may" be solved.

I actually wrote 7 pages for this blog on the election and the crisis only to discover that for the 50th time that day my internet didn't connect and I just do not have the patience to re-write it, not with the patience I've had to expend on computer companies this week. You really don't want to know. It's been rough and if I had a Verizon, Dell or Norton person here in front of me, I would not be myself.

Anyway, it's probably a good thing as it would just piss you off. But, since I won't re-write it, here's my instant summary of it stripped of anything that might pass as insight in another universe.

All politicians lie.
McCain and Obama are politicians.
Thus, McCain and Obama lie (constantly)

All presidential campaigns are based almost exclusively on lies except for when it is just plain exaggeration. Sometimes stupidity, but mostly lies.

Partisans are crazy.
Most people I know are partisans.
Thus, most people are crazy.
If you are a partisan, you are crazy too.

You can favor one side over the other without being partisan, angry or buying into the lying and exaggerations on your side.

I favor McCain, but not for policy reasons. These are the three main reasons: Experience (for what it is worth, and it must mean something); More moderate than Obama; Won't be the same party as congress (key point); will be perceived as more dangerous to Iran, Russia, etc.

On the other hand, he has run a horrible campaign. On yet a third hand, the majority of the media that counts (meaning not petty blogs like my own) has been in Obama's corner since he first laced on the gloves. Ask Hillary. Ask (pre-revelation) Joe Biden.

Here's my summary of my now deceased essay on finance.

The experts are idiots. They know no more than we do.

Our money system is make believe. Of course crazy things are going to happen. We will just make believe something else.

If it doesn't make any sense to you then it probably doesn't make any sense. They don't know more than you do. They understand our system is make believe and have better imaginations than you.

As in politics, we get what we deserve. We invest without paying attention and leave it to the experts. Almost like buying magic beans from someone because they have a tall weed in their front yard.

Both parties want to mostly exclude Americans who took loans they knew they could not pay. Shame on them. I'm sure there is real predatory lending, but much of what is called predatory lending is not.

It was necessary to have congress act quickly to handle credit crisis. We are a credit society.

But, they should have put out the fire and come up with a solution that doesn't involve government becoming a major player in the market. That's why we had Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the first place. There are many good suggestions out there and they don't fit in my summary.

If we are going to continue with a capitalist system you have to have losers. The government should not get involved as they are here without country threatening consequences if they don't. A worldwide depression isn't enough.

It is going to get worse, much worse before it gets better. If you haven't read up on credit default swaps yet, Google and read the Wikipedia article (but, in short, it is sort of an insurance policy by another name and without any money backing it up). That Market may blow up too. No one even understands it or knows how much is out there. But, it is many, many TRILLIONS (if the capital letters did not do the trick -- that is Trillions, not Billions. If not now, soon.

And then, everything will right itself after a lot of pain. And then, we will screw it up again just like always.

The End.

Hopefully, I'll be back next week end with computer power, the internet, and the type of article that made me unknown throughout the country. I'd like to thank the Buchanan Library for use of their computer and the Academy for their support.

Wow, even my Reader's Digest version of my blog is too long.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Our Country Right or Wrong - Stephen Decatur

One of my self appointed missions in this peripatetic blog is to shed just a little more light on some great persons that history has, if not forgotten, stored away for another day or reduced to one quote or a place name.

Although I'm not always as attentive to our heroes on the sea as I have been with those on land, one early American, Stephen Decatur, Jr. has not gotten his due, at least for a long, long time. Frankly, as much time as I have spent reading American history the past 30 years or so, I knew very little more than his name and that he was in the Navy, until a few years ago when I began spending a little time on the Barbary Wars.

Decatur was a third generation sailor, his grandfather sailing for the French and his father a Revolutionary War Navy man. Junior made his name during America's first actual foreign war after the Revolution (as opposed to the quasi-war with France before the turn of the century), sometimes called the Barbary War, which commenced with Jefferson's first term in 1801 and continued on for several years. The marauding pirates or corsairs out of Tripoli (hence the line in the song - "from the shores of Tripoli") had made the Mediterranean Sea a dangerous place for American shipping. It was worth fighting a war over. Morocco and Algiers also engaged in pirating acts against us. Essentially, if we were to sail what they believed was their sea, we, like the European nations, would have to pay them tribute. To Jefferson's credit, and I discredit him enough in this blog that this may come as a surprise, he fought back. Nevertheless, the Pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, declared war upon us for our refusal to pay tribute.

About two and a half years after the war started the new commander, Commodore Edward Treble, suffered a blow. His second most powerful ship, The Philadelphia, along with a considerable portion of his fighting force, was captured while blockading Tripoli and chasing a smaller ship, when it foundered on a shoal and, listing, was unable to fire its guns at the surrounding attacking enemy ships.

Eventually, the Tripolitans timidly took possession of the ship, needing first to be assured they would not be attacked when they did. Once aboard and seeing there would be no danger to them, they ravaged the ship to the degree that their own officers began slicing off hands to stop them. The majority of captured sailors, rank and file men, were thrown into a dank cellar in the castle in which they would have to live for some time. They were abused and treated as slaves, which, was not at all uncommon in the world at the time for prisoners. Remember, America was a slave power for over 60 more years. However, Tripoli saw itself as a sophisticated power and preferred not to slaughter captured men, at least in theory. Besides, they could be ransomed, and that was a better result.

Officers were treated better. Captain William Brainbridge, an unlucky, if brave and accomplished man, who suffered one naval humiliation after another to this point, and other officers were put up in an old house formerly occupied by the American consul, which was far more livable than an unfinished basement. They even attended dinners given by their captors. This also was not unusual for officers. The ship's doctor became the Pasha's doctor and given more freedom still. Americans also treated captured officers better than the run of the mill military man.

Brainbridge used the opportunity well. He was allowed to send letters out and at first encoded them so that he could provide Preble with data. Soon after, odd sounding letters were forbidden to be sent by him. However, he discovered that by using lime juice, he could write in invisible ink and was able to communicate important information.

Although the men were badly treated, and at least 5 of them became Muslims to free themselves of the slavery (one even became the worst overseer of his former mates). Another killed himself and still another died from abuse, they eventually gained some freedom to walk the town in small groups and buy things for themselves. Preble was able to provide them with money and other items for their comfort. Still, it was a hellish existence from which they could not wait to escape. The local Pasha put up on them of first millions, but then a half a million dollars.

The Philadelphia itself was repaired by the locals and they even salvaged the canons thrown overboard. It was tied up in the Tripoli harbor in front of the Pasha's own palace. Boarding it and successfully sailing away seemed unlikely. Unbeknownst to Treble, the Tripolitans were not able to successfully man and utilize the large ship themselves, and the Pasha was intending to sell it. Treble ordered it burned and asked the young Decatur, merely a lieutenant, but already commanding the ship Enterprise to tackle the raid. Seventy volunteers from his own ship and another went along.

First, Treble and Decature did surveillance themselves, and watched from the edge of the harbor. It was obviously quite dangerous for ships if you did not have expert knowledge, so, taking it out under the eyes of the Tripolitans and over 100 canon that the two men could count for themselves seemed more than could be accomplished. While they were out surveilling, the came across a Tripolitan merchant ship using a British flag as cover. They boarded and found possessions from the Philadelphia. This fit in with their plans. They took the men prisoner (only 60 as opposed to 300 plus remaining from the Philadelphia) and converted the ship to their own use. They intended to sail into the harbor under the guise of the merchant ship, with most of the men concealed below decks, and burn the big ship right in front of the castle and its harbor canon. It is not clear from history whether the plan was Bainbridge's, Preble's or Decatur's. Each has a claim.

Here's how they carried out the first great commando raid in U.S. history in February, 1804. The volunteers manned the captured ship, renamed by them the Intrepid. After a week's horrid delay due to a storm and the men being forced to eat rotten beef and biscuits, they entered the harbor flying British colors. The men huddled below decks while Decatur and a few others stayed on board and drifted into the harbor. Preble's own pilot, a Sicilian named Salvatore Catalano, spoke the local dialect and called to the men guarding the Philadelphia that he had lost his anchors and had to tie up next to their ship. He convinced the guards, but not for long.

As the Americans made ready to board the ship, the ruse was uncovered (it's not quite clear to me how, to tell the truth) and, at Decatur's bellowed order, the Americans below bearing swords and knives flowed out from below decks and boarded, killing many of the outnumbered Tripolitan guards onboard. Other guards leapt overboard and were overtaken by a small boat the Americans launched. As fate would have it Decatur slipped just before boarding and his lieutenant boarded ahead of him, a big honor at the time.

Although the men carried cutting weapons to do their work in order to keep the matter a surprise, once the ship was retaken a rocket was set off to give notice to another American ship waiting out in the harbor. Quickly, the ship was set afire in several different places. The rocket alerted the ground forces as to what was happening and they opened up their batteries on Decatur's little ship. Two pirate ships nearby began shooting small arms at them (but, fortunately, did not use their canon).

Ironically, the Philadelphia's restored canons, had been loaded to protect the harbor from the Americans, and began to be set off, even firing into the city itself. Decatur waited until it was too late for the Philadelphia to be saved for use and then made his escape with his men -- all of them. Not a man was lost. Only one was wounded (of course, we are not counting the beatings the captured sailors in the castle received for this event over which they had no control). Decatur, although not first to board, was last to leave it. Just after they began their escape, the powder in the Philadelphia caught fire and blew up.

The fire burned all night and lit up the harbor. It could be seen from 40 miles away. The skeleton of the ship was not recovered until about a hundred years later.

Perhaps I've failed in explaining how significant this achievement was. So, I'll quote the most revered of all sailors since Columbus -- Admiral Horatio Nelson of His Majesty's Navy. It was, he said, "the most bold and daring act of the age". That's like Michael Jordan saying some young star played the best basketball game he ever saw. Since Nelson bought the farm the following year, he probably didn't change his mind either. The Pope at the time said that more had been done for Christianity in that one raid than "the most powerful Christian nations" had done "for ages."

An irony worth mentioning. The Philadelphia's first captain was Decatur's father. His son was the last man to stand upon it.

Later in 1804, Decatur led six gunboats in and fought nineteen corsair ships, and had a lopsided victory that was part of a cumulative series of blows that helped resolved the war the following year (there is another fascinating episode by another intrepid soul I will keep to myself for now and write about another time). They captured three of the ships, sunk yet another and damaged the others. Afterwards they sat just below the city and pounded it relentlessly.

During the attack, Decatur lost his brother, James, who reputedly fought well but fell. Decatur, pleased as a character out of Homer that his brother died well, still sought revenge. He returned to the harbor and sought out the commander of the ship who killed his sibling right on his boat. The commander turned out to be a giant Turkman bearing a large boarding pike. Decatur, wielding only a cutlass went after him just the same. At first, Decatur got the upper hand when another Trilopitan tried to attack him from behind. An American who actually had lost the use of his arms during the fight threw himself in the way and took the blow. In the meantime, the giant had reversed his position with Decatur and seemed about to stab him with a knife he pulled out of his clothing, when Decatur pulled out his own weapon, a gun, and shot him dead. The fight is reported by an eye witness and is among official naval records, even if it seems larger than life and a little like professional wrestling today.

For his Philadelphia feat he was promoted to Captain at only 25 years old, the youngest ever, and soon was considered a senior member of the force. He received an official commendation and sword from congress and he and his men were lauded in public. One enterprising American composer took an old British drinking tune and wrote a tribute to Decatur and his men. Some words and rhymes from it may ring a bell with you, but I'll highlight to help -

"By the light of the star-spangled flag of our nation . . .
And the turban'd head bowed to the terrible glare
Now, mixed with the olive, the laurel shall wave,
And form a bright wreath for the brows of the brave.

Indeed, the song was the prelude to our national anthem that the composer, Francis Scott Key, penned during the War of 1812, when, although extremely unprepared, we declared war on Great Britain. If it can be said that there was a bright spot for America while that war lasted (the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the war was ended) it was some of the performances of its still fledging and long unsupported Navy. While not facing the full might of the British Navy, which was still engaged in conflicts with Napolean and elsewhere around the world, in individual contests, American sailors sometimes came out ahead, humbling its proud forebearer nation on more than a few occasions.

By then, Decatur was a commodore. I won't go into his exploits in that war, but, they were significant. Decatur actually was a prisoner when, near the end of the war, he finally had to surrender his ship to a much more powerful force. But, after his release, he was soon back in the Mediterranean in what is called the Second Barbary War and this time put an end to tribute and the capture and ransoming of American sailors by the Barbary nations.

Now that there was peace with Britain and Napoleon was defeated by the Brits and their allies, the Americans turned their full force against Algiers ruled by Dey Omar the Agar, whose assassinated predecessor had been merciless during the time the Americans could not spare fighting vessels to protect their merchants. This time Decatur was sent back with ten ships, the largest contingency of American ships to that time, until, the second squadron under Bainbridge, seventeen strong, sailed after him. Within one week of his arrival, Decatur's squadron captured a ship bearing an Algerian admiral, followed by a second ship.

When he sailed to Algiers and confirmed the captures, he was quickly able to secure a treaty. Although Algiers insisted on keeping some American property the prisoners were released to him. He returned the two recently taken ships as "a favor" to the Dey. Although Decatur had thought the refusal to return the property fair (go figure) he was resolute and gave them three hours to sign, permitting no delay. He signed.

He was then off to Tunis and forced a similar treaty with them. One difference. America had been paying tribute to the North African powers for some 30 years including, in reality, at the end of the Tripolitan War, although it was couched otherwise. This time Decatur demanded and received $60,000 in payment for the taking by Tunisians of two American ships. He next sailed to Tripoli where Karamanli still ruled and demanded $30,000 for U.S. ships that Tripoli held for Britain during the Americans war with them. Not only that, but he demanded and received the release of prisoners from a number of European nations from him, making him somewhat of an international hero.

He had turned three decades of American embarrassment and centuries of it for the Europeans on its head. I don't mean to suggest that Bainbridge or another commodore could not have accomplished the same with the firepower provided them, but, Decatur was the one America trusted with the job and he perfectly accomplished it.

Decatur later became a Navy Commissioner and a social figure of note. His life ended in 1820 with a duel, a ritual to which he was no stranger. He was challenged by James Barron, a captain who Decatur had criticized and sat judgment upon unfavorably in a court martial. The weapons were pistols. Decatur made it known he intended only to wound. His second, ironically, was William Bainbridge. Neither Bainbridge or the opposing second helped settle the affair after Barron made what seemed like an attempt at it. Decatur was a crack shot. He succeded in only wounding Barron, but was fatally hit himself and died in agony the next day. His funeral was a huge event attended by president Monroe, congress, the supreme court justices and over 10,000 citizens.

His popularity at the time of his death perhaps best explains my puzzlement why he is not a househeld name today like other early American figures, such as Daniel Boone's, Davey Crockett, Kit Carson, Admiral David Farragut, and so on, although he was so revered in his time and accomplished so much more than they. I rate John Paul Jones in the same league with Decatur, but he has many times over the other man's fame. Why?

He is strangely best remembered today for the towns named after him. You've probably heard of Decatur, Illinois but there were many more named for him. There are also schools and a string of Navy ships which bear or bore his name. Although his exploits (which also include some duels and sword fights) are not much remembered these days any more than his great commando raid is, he is sometimes also remembered for one quote, a toast he made -- "Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!" Toasts are shorter these days, so we are more familiar with the abbreviated version, which he did not say -- "My country, right or wrong!" Most often, the quote is remembered, but not the man.

There have been a few Decatur biographies you can find on Amazon which all seemed to have come out in the last few years. Although these are not my sources, they are probably worthwhile for books purely on Decatur. Sometimes, I have to admit, I don't remember my own sources, but I do with this subject. They are Henry Adams History of the United States, 1801-1809, Frank Lambert's The Barbary Wars and Joseph Wheelan's Jefferson's War, the first of which is an all time classic worth every second if you are obsessed by history (probably deadly if you are not), and the last two written just this millenium, are much more focused on the subject and faster, easier reads.

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 . . . .