Saturday, October 31, 2009

WWII trivia

You know I love my historical trivia. This week’s category is World War II. My own self enforced rules are that I have to know the answer before I ask you (although sometimes I do cheat a bit if it is one of those things where I know I know it but it’s on the tip of my tongue and I can't quite . . . . You old guys know what I'm talking about).


1. Kay Summersby was the name of

a. Eisenhower’s reputed mistress during WWII.
b. Roosevelt’s reputed mistress during WWII.
c. the only member of the U.S. house of representatives to vote “no” to war after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
d. Tokyo Rose’s real name.

2. The name of Albania’s ruler until Mussolino had Italy invade a few months before WWII started.

a. Ramades Pera.
b. King Zog.
c. Ross King.
d. General Zod.

3. Churchill’s physician was

a. Lord Halifax.
b. Stanley Baldwin.
c. Duff Cooper.
d. Lord Moran.

4. Poland’s leader, at least in foreign affairs, when Germany invaded Poland to start WWII was

a. Josef Beck.
b. Heinz Guderian.
c. Wolfgang Hochstetter.
d. Monte Cassino.

5. The surrender of Japan took place on the

a. U.S.S. Indianapolis.
b. The U.S.S. Missouri.
c. U.S.S. Philadelphia.
d. U.S.S. Bismarck.

6. The first head of the U.S. spy service the O.S.S. was

a. William J. Donovan.
b. Charles Lindbergh.
c. Allen Dulles.
d. William S. Stephenson.

7. The name of British spymaster and later author Ian Fleming's home in Jamaica was

a. Moonraker.
b. Chartwell.
c. MI6.
d. Goldeneye.

8. A valet in the British Mission to Turkey was a German spy code named

a. Pastorius.
b. Ultra.
c. Rainbow.
d. Cicero.

9. The only pilot to fly on both missions dropping atomic bombs on Japan was

a. Colonel Paul Tibbets.
b. Major Thomas McGuire.
c. Major Charles W. Sweeney.
d. Lady Jennie Jerome Randolph.

10. John Strange Churchill, a WWI British hero, was also

a. Winston’s brother.
b. Winston’s nefarious uncle who had a great influence on his nephew.
c. An American author who capitalized on Churchill's name in the 30s and 40s.
d. The only Churchill from the same generation as Winston now still alive at 107 years old.

11. Winston Churchill, as opposed to Winston S. Churchill, was

a. The code name for the actor who actually broadcast Churchill’s famous radio addresses.
b. A British politician, novelist and painter.
c. A British scientist at Los Alamos who designed the trigger for “Fat Boy”.
d. An American politician, novelist and painter.

12. Savrola was the name of

a. The leader of the Yugoslavian underground.
b. A mystic who would occasionally counseled Hitler early in the war.
c. Winston Churchill’s one novel.
d. The home built near Berchtesgaden for Hitler's 50th birthday.

13. Spandau was the name of

a. Hitler’s beloved german shepherd.
b. The prison where German war criminals were held after the Nuremberg Trials.
c. Churchill’s prized foxhound.
d. The first bridge to be taken in Germany after D-Day.

14. Georgy Zhukov was

a. A leading Soviet general.
b. The province in Georgia where Stalin was probably raised.
c. The legendary unjammable Soviet assault rifle.
d. The Soviet Spy at Los Alamos.

15. King Michael’s Coup refers to

a. A child’s game played in the Soviet Union during the war.
b. The tavern in Cambridge where Eisenhower and staff formulated D-Day plans.
c. The recapture of political power in Romania by King Michael near the end of the war.
d. A tactic used by sub-destroyers to trap German submarines by triangulating sonar.

16. He fought at Guadalcanal

a. “Would you believe” Don Adams (Get Smart)?
b. Don Rickles, you stupid morons.
c. Don Knotts.
d. Donald Pleasance.

17. He studied at Harvard, planned the Pearl Harbor invasion and said “"I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.”

a. Isoroku Yamamoto.
b. Hideki Togo.
c. Hirohito.
d. Kantaro Suzuki.

18. He was a leading proponent of tank warfare and lightning attacks among the allies before WWII

a. FDR.
b. Winston Churchill.
c. Charles de Gaulle.
d. Dwight Eisenhower.

19. The notorious “Munich Agreement” was

a. The surrender of Germany to the allies, excepting the Soviet Union, in May, 1945.
b. An agreement by France, Britain and Italy to allow Germany to take part of Czechoslovakia.
c. An agreement by France, Britain and Italy to allow the unification of Austria and Germany.
d. The formal agreement by France and Britain to guarantee Poland’s independence.

20. Audie Murphy was

a. a decorated war hero who died in a plane crash on the way back from Europe.
b. a successful actor who many believe was actually a decorated war hero – he was 14 when WWII ended.
c. a great soldier, a successful lightweight boxer and country western songwriter.
d. a great soldier, a successful movie star and country western songwriter.


1. Kay Summersby was the name of

a. Eisenhower’s reputed mistress during WWII. At least she so much later claimed (she was his chauffeur, for sure) as did one fairly diseputable author who wrote that Truman told him that Eisenhower wanted to divorce Mamie and marry her (also after everyone was dead). Who knows. Even she indicated they never really had intercourse, although that could have been to save her reputation. However, popular culture being what it is, many people just assume it is true without even recognizing that the sources are very weak. Jeanette Rankin was the lone voice against war after Pearl Harbor for which she was booed and did not get re-elected. She was one of the few who voted not to go war in WWI as well, but that was a tougher call.

2. The name of Albania’s ruler until Italy invaded a few months before WWII started.

b. For those who are thinking Zod, he’s a character in Superman. Zog was the name of the Albanian King who fled with his wife and child when the Italian’s marched in not long before the big war. I just like his name. He’s not real important. Pera was a child actor who played young Kwai Chang Caine, Ross King an author about art (I particularly recommend Brunelleschi's Dome and Michaelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling).

3. Churchill’s physician was

d. Lord Charles Moran. Halifax was Britain’s foreign affairs minister, Baldwin a previous PM and Cooper an undersung Churchill ally. Moran was the author of probably the first book yours truly ever read about WWII not authored by Churchill

4. Poland’s leader, at least in foreign affairs, when Germany invaded Poland to start WWII was

a. That would be Josef Beck, whose name has fallen from most histories, probably because he was interned in Romania for the war. There probably was not a sole leader of Poland at the time, but the responsibility for foreign affairs was his and he worked hard to protect his country. Guderian was a great Panzer leader and tank innovator (I recommend his memoirs). Hochstetter, in case any of you picked him, was a character on Hogan’s Heroes, and Monte Cassino was an Italian monastery central to a great battle of the war.

5. The surrender of Japan took place on the

b. The U.S.S. Missouri, of course. The Indianapolis went down at the end of the war and has never been located. The most famous Philadelphia (there were several with that name) saw service in the Barbary Wars. The Bismarck was Germany’s flagship, sunk Britain’s Hood, and was later torpedoed by them - don't mess with the British Navy - at least in the old days.

6. The first head of the U.S. spy service the O.S.S. was

a. William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan was certainly a great American whose name is generally forgotten. I recommend Anthony Cave Brown’s Wild Bill Donovan: The Last Hero. Believe it or not, Lindbergh did actually fight in WWII and even shot down an enemy plane, but he was really there for planning and morale. Dulles was Donovan’s chief of operations and later the head of the CIA which Donovan also started following the war. Stephenson was Britain's intelligence liaison to America.

7. The name of British spymaster and James Bond author Ian Fleming's home in Jamaica is

d. Goldeneye, which Fleming says was based on one of the missions he planned regarding the preservation of Gibraltar and also a Carson McCuller’s novel. Chartwell was a Churchill family home.

8. A valet in the British Mission to Turkey was the spy code named

d. That would be Cicero. I won’t put his real name because I never remember it myself, but you can look it up. He was Albanian in origin and for a while very successful at his task, which he apparently did purely for money. Pastorius was the code name for the comical German sabotage attempt in America in 1942, Ultra was the name for the material garnered from allied intercepts of German Enigma machine coded messages and Rainbow was a collection of American combat plans prior to the war.

9. The only man to fly on both missions dropping atomic bombs on Japan was

c. Sweeney’s War’s End is worth reading. He was in another B-29 for the Hiroshima bombing, where his boss, Tibbets, piloted the plane that dropped the bomb. Sweeney took the lead role for Nagasaki. Thomas McGuire was a top ace in the Pacific, but was killed there. Jennie was Churchill’s mother and not a pilot at all. If you picked her, you need to do some reading.

10. John Strange Churchill, a WWI British hero, was also

a. He was, in fact, the great man’s brother and quite an impressive fellow in his own way. They were close but Winston’s fame completely eclipsed subsequent knowledge of him. He died a few years after the war. There are those who believe that the man he was named for, John Strange, was Winston’s real father, possibly being one of Lady Randolph's lovers. We could dig them up and do dna testing if Britain would allow it (yeah, right), but otherwise it's hard to say. I know of no Churchill still now alive from Winston's generation.

11. Winston Churchill, as opposed to Winston S. Churchill, was

d. He was, in fact, quite a well known American politician, novelist and painter. They knew each other and corresponded. The British version decided that when he wrote, he would use his middle initial to differentiate between them. The American had no middle name. Norman Shelley was a British actor who was rumored to be Churchill's stand i,n but, that claim appears to be bogus.

12. Savrola was the name of

c. Winston Churchill’s one novel, a political thriller. I read most of it and just could not finish. Don’t bother. Churchill was a magnificent writer, but I'm glad he stuck to non-fiction. The home built by the Nazi’s near Berchtesgaden for Hitler’s 50th birthday was Kehlsteinhaus, eerily similar to the name of the grade school teacher I disliked the most.

13. Spandau was the name of

b. The prison where German war criminals were held after the Nuremberg Trials.

14. Georgy Zhukov was

a. Probably the greatest Soviet general. These things are always debatable, but I think not so much here. Even with one or two controversial contributions, those that are sure almost certainly make the Marshall the best of the best. I completely made up b and c. Klaus Fuchs was the name of the Soviet spy at Los Alamos.

15. King Michael’s Coup refers to

c. King Michael reclaimed his throne from the pro-German dictator, Ion Antonescu, in Romania, switched them over to the allies, but soon after the war became a puppet for the Soviets before he was forced to abdicate a second time and Romania became a satellite. Nice try though, Mikey.

16. He fought at Guadalcanal

a. “Would you believe” Don Adams (Get Smart)? Rickles was in the navy. Pleasance was reportedly captured and tortured by the Gestapo. Knotts was an entertainer there and actually received a medal for his services. Adams, a marine, fought in several battles, was lucky to survive when his battalion was wiped out ("missed it by that much"), and was shot at Guadalcanal.

17. He studied at Harvard, planned the Pearl Harbor invasion and said “"I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.”

a. Isoroku Yamamoto, who was brilliant and also right about America. Hideki Togo was a political opponent of his and became Japan’s prime minister. Hirohito was Emperor, of course, and Suzuki was the last war PM and the one who surrendered.

18. He was a leading proponent of tank warfare and lightning attacks among the allies before WWII

c. Charles de Gaulle was a successful combat veteran who wrote about tank warfare before the war, just as Guderian was pressing it in Germany. Guderian was listened to, de Gaulle was not. Obviously, de Gaulle led French forces after the country's surrender and was France's long time leader after the war. There are a number of good books about him of which I read a couple. He's hard to warm up to if you are an American.

19. The notorious “Munich Agreement” was

b. The agreement which Neville Chamberlain said represented “Peace in our time,” and, as we know, did not. Hitler took Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland for Germany and the rest of the country was soon after dismembered by hungry neighbors. Although Hitler himself did not see Munich as a political victory, the ease which he manipulated Chamberlain emboldened him to invade Poland the next year, beginning the war. There have been efforts to rehabilitate Chamberlain's diplomacy, but they sound hollow to me when I read them.

20. Audie Murphy was

d. a true American combat hero in WWII, a movie star and actually a successful song writer (although, seriously, how hard is that . . . It was cold and wet the day my mawmaw diiiiiied. . .) He did die in a plane crash, but that was much later.

Hope you enjoyed.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Ten things you didn't know about lawyers (and may not want to know)

While 9/11 stands as the single most ominous day in their lifetime for most Americans, for this laddie 9/12 is as significant. Yes, that was the day I was sworn in as a lawyer in the State of New York, 25 years ago.

What was I thinking?

Leave aside that I could of, should of, would of done other things. That ship has long sailed. But, I flash back to 1979 or early 1980 – the crystal ball is foggy – to when I was speaking to my mother and my then wife about my future career (or lack thereof). My mother said, why don’t you go to law school? My wife agreed?

I looked at both of them with what I imagine now was puzzlement and said “I don’t even want to be in a room with a lawyer.”

In the movie version of this story, the next scene shows me seated on the right side of a large lecture hall listening to some professor drone on about law and I am thinking Three years. I’m never going to get out of here.

And in the next scene, I am in the same lecture hall, except where everyone else is looking at the professor, I have swiveled my chair and was staring out the back windows. At least, this is what I am told I was doing by someone who was there. I have only the vaguest memory of it, but it sounds like me.

My law school career was perhaps even less stellar than my college career, but at least in college I could get decent grades with a minimum of effort (we won’t even discuss my high school career, but to sum it up, I got a 4 on the last math final I ever took). Actually, I put some effort into my first year of law, or I would have drowned, and did well enough to get on Law Review, the goal of almost all law students. Of course, they had ambition.

But Law Review did not go well for me. We had to do two things. Edit an article supposedly written by a scholar and also write our own article.

The editing process was difficult for me, but that wasn’t really my fault. The scholar I was editing had written on the constitutionality of the party primary and caucus election system. Now, of course, I would devour such an assignment, perhaps even re-write it for the guy (which it needed). To this day, I still don’t understand his points and his research was so bad that I remember vividly one case to which he cited that turned out not to be about party primaries, but fish hatcheries.

Now, I was lucky in a sense. I was teamed up with a young woman who was number one in our class, and real sweet. Despite the fact that she desperately did not want to be a lawyer (just a mommy – wonder how that worked out), she was as hard-working as I was lazy. However, when we were going on our 11th week of work on it and most of the other reviewers had long finished their easy projects, I quit.

I didn’t just quit because of the editing. I also quit because I couldn’t figure out what to write about myself. Hard to believe if you are a reader of this blog, I’m sure, as the complaint is never that I don’t write enough, but write too much. I knew very little about politics and was only a student of law. What did I know?

I had no idea what to write about. I knew very little about the constitution, less about politics, and was filled with the notion that you shouldn’t write about something unless you were an expert. I now realize that 95% or so of what passes for expertise is just prattle and almost no one knows what they are talking about on any given subject, but I was still years away from that revelation. I came up with – don’t laugh – I was a super liberal – a constitutional right to a good environment. I said don’t laugh. Of course, I couldn’t find much to support my proposition. A couple of newspaper articles, I believe, although my memory is not so good. Of course, my editor should have said (as one co-worker did) that I had no clue what I was talking about and pick something else.

My quitting Law Review caused quite a stir. A few editors begged me not to quit, and many people in the school were aghast, but I didn’t want to work for a big firm when I got out of school anyway – the thought left me quite cold. I made my mind up.

I can’t say whether that was a big mistake or not, looking over my shoulder at the years gone by. I may have found law even more unfortunate of a profession than I sometimes did later on had I gone on to big firm world. But, the truth was, although I have made law my career, it was not what I should have done - period.

But, law in the abstract is fun. I love the case law, I love the constitutional debate, I love writing. What I do now, write, research, edit for other lawyers, is great. Because it is not the law which ruins being a lawyer – it is the clients, and the judges and the other lawyers.

Here are ten things you didn’t know about being a lawyer.

1. Lawyering can be very funny.

Sometimes it can be downright hysterical. Like the time I was doing a deposition in a car accident case and an elderly attorney, questioning a young woman passenger, asked her if just before the impact she “ejaculated anything?” Of course, I knew exactly what he meant and his usage of the word was fine, if a little archaic, but the sexual double entendre was too much for me and after locking eyes with the reporter, I asked for a brief adjournment, went out of the room followed by the reporter and another lawyer and proceeded to dissolve into laughter or tears. That one I sent off to a reporting company which collected incidents like it for a year end volume. Another one which made it into print was a dog case. The lawyer, trying to get a defendant to acknowledge that her friendly dog, Lucky, may have been overly rambunctious, asked her if Lucky liked to lick people. She said yes. And then, for some reason that I can’t conceive, he asked her “Does Lucky like to lick people in special places?”

Time out. Brief break please.

2. Many lawyers have no clue what they are talking about.

Lawyers want you to think that they are smart and know what they are talking about. Some, however, have no idea what they are doing – even in their own specialty. For example, I have done a small amount of real estate work – buying and selling houses for clients. It’s not particularly hard, and took me a few years to get to the point where I can get through them fairly easily (although they have become more tedious). If I have a problem there are a couple of people I trust who do it full time that I can ask. But, about ten years ago, when I was doing maybe ten deals a year (which is very few – some do hundreds) I looked at my secretary after one phone call and said – “Are we the only people in the world who know how to do this?” Don’t get me wrong. I am not Mr. Real Estate, but I was constantly stunned at how many deals would get botched up by the other lawyer, even when it was their livelihood. Now, I’ve never had a deal go wrong at the end, somehow fixed them all (except one for myself, but that’s a long story and I just let the other side out), but the incompetence can be overwhelming.

The level of incompetence is perhaps even more so in litigation. Not that I never make a mistake, I do, but some lawyers will try a case not having the first clue what the law is on it, no idea how to cross-examine someone (which is fun and easy with a little training). Often the law they cite stands for the opposite proposition. When I have ventured into new fields I often found that a couple of days’ research makes me more of an expert than people who have been doing it for years. Me smart? No. Them dumb? Lazy? More likely. Trust me, many lawyers have no clue.

3. You have no idea who is a good lawyer or not.

There is a saying in the law that goes around every once in a while. “Many lawyers wouldn’t know their own reputation if they met it on the street.” If that is too dry to be understandable, it means that lawyers’ actual abilities were not consistent with their reputations. Reputation is about marketing and sometimes media. There are exceptions, of course. My first boss, Dave Dean, is known as a first rate trial lawyer. He was lead counsel on the Agent Orange case (settled before trial) in the 80s and tried the first World Trade Center bombing case a few years ago and got a whopping verdict (which, to me was crazy, but he’s that good). Dave has remarkable people skills that just bowls juries over. I doubt it is teachable. I’ve seen people try and they’ve been pathetic. Big firms are often filled with lawyers who were good students but not so good lawyers (not all, of course). When I see a big firm on the other side of a case, it gives me a good feeling. They are filled up with themselves and often try and rely on “who they are” without doing solid work. A few times in my career, I have literally been asked – “Do you really think you can beat us?” The answer is yes, it happens all the time, although I prefer to play with them and feed their egos.

Many times when I hear some lay person tell me that “so and so” is a great lawyer or, and I love this one, “a big shot lawyer,” I laugh to myself. They aren’t. But, lay people have no ability to tell who is and who is not. Frankly, a lot of lawyers can’t tell either.

4. Hate to tell you – but it’s the same with judges.

I’ve practiced in New York for 25 years. So, I can only tell you about those judges. Some are very good and knowledgeable. But, many are not. In fact, worse, sometimes they are ignoramuses on top of being biased. Some hear trials and don’t even know the most basic rules of evidence. For example, one of the most basic rules in law is that if you call a witness, you can’t lead him/her by giving the answers in the questions. However, when you call the other side as your witness, you can lead them because otherwise they won’t cooperate. Regardless, many judges believe that you can’t lead them either. Here’s another example. I was deposing a party and asked the content of conversations between him, his lawyer and a third party. There is no doubt that the rule of privilege ends when a third party comes into the conversation. The other lawyer objected and we went for a ruling by a notoriously dumb judge (nice, but dumb). She asked me why I wanted to know what this party said the conversation was – why didn’t I just depose the other guy. I answered because when I do depose the other guy, I want to see if he says something different. She said, well, that wouldn’t be fair, would it? What? Not being able to see if witnesses are lying is fair? I guess in that courtroom, witnesses have a right to lie.

Unfortunately, in New York, judges are nominated by the political parties for their party work and they often cross-endorse, so that there is really no choice. In my humble opinion, if you want to be a judge, you should have to pass a test harder than the bar lawyers pass. You should be as knowledgeable, if not more so, than those practicing before you. The standard shouldn’t be how much time you’ve spent licking stamps for politicians. You might get some good judges that way, but you get a lot of bad ones too.

5. Witnesses do lie all the time.

I hate to say it, but people feel that when they take the stand they have a right to lie. Yes, they take an oath and some people take it seriously, but it seems to me a majority of witnesses feels they have a right to lie under oath if it is in their interest. Even nice people. It has just become the culture. When I was a very young attorney I went out on a deposition where the plaintiff and the defendant were neighbors and they got along despite the lawsuit. They told different versions of the same story. Afterwards I walked past them as they waited for the elevator together. One of them, I no longer recall if it were my client or the other, said “You lied. I lied. We both lied.”

It opened my eyes a little. Lying witnesses actually helps lawyers sometimes. Some people are very good at it and your client can lose their case based on their testimony, but I find as often as not, maybe more so, the lies are provable, and the right thing happens. Usually, it’s because there is some document somewhere that tells a different story.

6. Your lawyer is ripping you off (maybe).

There are good, honest lawyers out there who charge only for what they bill, but, truth be known, many lawyers bill far more time than they spend. That reminds me of a joke. A young lawyer dies and goes to heaven. When he gets there he complains that he is too young. After all, he says, “I’m only thirty-five.” St. Peter looks at him and says, “According to your time sheets, you are eighty-five.”

So often when I’m an adversary on a case and I get to see what the other side billed, or even people I’m friendly with, I’m stunned that the numbers are so high for simple things. A lay person cannot know how long it takes to bill to write a complaint, for example. However, lawyers even over bill other lawyers. One lawyer I frequently worked with hired a “big” firm to do a complaint up state. They billed him and his partners roughly $100,000 just for the first document, large portions of which my friend wrote for them. Not that it wasn’t complicated – it was, but he estimated we could have done it for less than $30,000. The firm’s administrative partner billed 9 hours for administrative time. What administrative time. I’d love to see him defend that in court.

7. Jurors are actually pretty fair.

Jurors sometimes get a bad rap. We know most people don’t want to be jurors. It’s not their problem so they could care less. But, I’ve noticed, once they are on the panel, they do try pretty hard to be fair. I’ve been lucky on trial, but I’ve lost some cases. Yet, only in one case I lost did I feel that a jury was biased, and that was tangentially a race issue (I won the second half of the case anyway with a different jury).

I developed this rap with jurors when I am questioning the panel as to who shall sit on the jury. I mention that we all know that people usually don’t look forward to sitting on a jury, but I tell them that in all the cases I have tried, I notice that once people take the oath, just like the witnesses do, not to mention the oaths lawyers and judges have taken, they take it very seriously (I actually raise my hand as if taking an oath). Studies show that if you talk to people about good qualities or model it for them, they will often mimic that behavior, unless they have strong interests the other way. I think it works. At least some times.

8. Perry Mason moments do happen in court.

I rarely have ever had a trial where there wasn’t some excitement, usually on cross-examination. But, some cases were more exciting than others. I remember one that I still can’t believe. I was defending a little old man who was sued by two 30 somethings. They claimed that they were driving along the parkway when suddenly they were hit in the rear. The driver says he bounced his head off the steering wheel, making him groggy, looked into the rear view mirror and read the license plate, memorizing it. I asked him a few times if he had any problem reading the plate after his head smacked into the interior of the car. He read it just like he read anything else. Except, as I pointed out to the jury on summation, in his rearview mirror, the letters and numbers on the plate would have appeared backwards. Even if it was possible for him to have read it in one second, he sure couldn’t have done it right after the blow to his head. I could see their eyes register that fact, although they remained stone faced. After the verdict, in my clients' favor, they indicated to me that they saw exactly what was going on. It was a Perry Mason moment which seems like something you’d only see on tv. I've had some others, but that will do.

9. Lawyers are nice.

Well, some of us. There are a small percentage of lawyers I hate. But, generally speaking, lawyers are some of the kindest, nicest people I know, despite all the jokes (and I do love those jokes).

10. Lawyers make great lovers.

I have no basis to say this, having been intimate only for a short period of my life with one lawyer, a young woman who soon moved away, but I definitely want people to believe its true for selfish reasons.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bashing partisanship - the saga continues

Oh, poor Rush, the liberals are being mean to him and he can't be an owner of a football team. Poor, Obama too, the conservatives are making fun of him for not getting the Olympics for Chicago. This is what you both get for your tactics, even if the attacks are unfair. We all get what you deserve - more mindless bickering and unfair character assassinations. I do believe we can do better. It's not a utopian dream although it will not be realized any time soon, probably not in my lifetime.

A few weeks ago I was challenged by a friend/reader as to my political assessment that "partisanship makes everyone a little bit crazy". I will state my position, discuss some studies I think are relevant, and throw it open for criticism. My friends' belief – and I'm pretty sure this covers it - is that my position (1) is offensive to people who have an ideological position (2) confuses that ideology with partisanship, and (3) merely evidences my own bias that everything has to end in some “nice” amorphous middle ground.

I disagree with the first two points and can give some credence to the third.

My central position is this - the biggest problem we face in this country is hard to define because it is not an issue, it is procedure. The control of congress by the two national parties, steeped in partisanship, stifles debate and legislation. This is a long standing problem and not surprising. We should train ourselves to be more open minded.

If it is ever to change it must be bottom up as we cannot expect the people in power to willingly surrender theirs. One of the reasons we cannot get past it is the strong partisanship felt by so many people towards one party or the other based on their identification with conservatism or liberalism, the two parties’ central ideologies. Many Americans share these beliefs, yet, because of the nature of independents, there are no central or common positions they repeatedly rally around. As it stands now, few people with a chance to win will run as an independents, and the few who do successfully must almost then always ally themselves with one of the two parties to even have a voice. The eventual flame out of Governor Ventura in Minnesota and Ross Perot’s Reform Party being taken over and essentially destroyed as a powerful political presence by Pat Buchanan’s party takeover in 2000, are good reasons for independent minded people to pause before they support independent candidates. It may not only waste their vote but help those they most dislike politically to win.

Thus, we can't simply "throw the bums out," because no side wants to take the chance that they would throw their bums out but the other side wouldn't, leaving them completely and utterly in control.

Partisanship can be very different from ideology, although often you can't tell the difference. You could alternatively use the phrase "ideological partisanship" instead of just "partisanship" and it would mean the same thing. Ideology means that the person has a position based on theories of government, jurisprudence, society, culture, science, etc., that is, something based on evidence or reason. Aside from the obvious definition, partisanship means knee jerk reactions as what party (sometimes person) proposes or opposes; liking or disliking or disparaging a public figure (or ordinary person even) or entity based on their party or ideology or belief system; forming positions on issues based on who is supporting them; rejecting policies out of hand because of who proposes it. It means being more likely to believe in the negative "facts" about the other side, and less likely with your own, and also taking the most extreme opinions from the other side and tarring the entire -ism with it.

Likewise with how important you think a scandal is - the question is rarely the real issue for many people, but who's ox is being gored? As an example, a very strong conservative once complained to me that Frank Lautenberg was flouting the election laws in NJ because of a late entry after scandal came out over the Democrat candidate. I agreed with him but asked if he thought that Dick Cheney was flouting the federal laws by pretending to live in Wyoming at the time he became a VP candidate to satisfy the election law in the constitution. That he said, was a silly thing to argue because it wasn't important, even though the two issues were quite similar.

I don’t mind admitting a bias towards the middle and opposition to extreme. We tend to have a bell curve shaped universe and most issues (not issues like slavery) seem to resolve themselves toward the middle over time. But by middle I do not necessarily mean some “feel good” kumbaya compromise, although that is a possibility sometimes. But, I have always been attracted to Ben Franklin’s closing speech (read for him) at the Constitutional Convention, which I will excerpt here:

I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error. Steele a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain french lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said "I don't know how it happens, Sister but I meet with no body but myself, that's always in the right — Il n'y a que moi qui a toujours raison."

. . . For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another's throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good. . . .
Rejecting partisanship or being independent in no way means you always believes a compromise or some soft middle position is the right thing to do, or, that important principals are not worth fighting hard for (hopefully, politically, and rarely otherwise). Independents or moderates might be more willing to compromise than partisan warriors, but where a true principal exist, they can be as strongly for or against a given position as any partisan. For example, for me, first amendment rights are most important and I am also quite passionate about the economic ruin I believe both parties are forcing upon us.

There are limits to everything and you can take any of the above statements to their extreme and find them untenable. But, in the main, I solemnly believe they are correct.

When I say “partisanship makes everyone a little crazy,” I often follow it up by saying something like - "not wacka wacka crazy." I say that not just because, clearly, being partisan doesn't make one nuts in the way we usually mean it, but also because I’d rather not offend people unnecessarily.

That leads to a paradox. I dislike ad hominem arguments and prefer to argue with people who don't regularly make them. That is, when people tell me that my position on something is because I'm a liberal, I'm a conservative, I'm a lawyer, I'm a psychology major (college), I only want to be controversial, I have too many rules, I'm illogical, I'm overly logical or technical, etc., I only take extreme positions, everything I say is a generalization, etc. (and I've heard all of those), I don't find it leads to a good discussion. Yet, when I am faced with regular ad hominem argument (the preferred method, not just of partisans) I find that the only way to deal with it is to call the person on it, point out that it the arguments they make are regularly ad hominem and encourage them to stop. Sometimes they do (although never for long). But I admit that doing so is itself an ad hominem attack on them. However, it is the only thing that seems to work other than not discussing anything with them. The same goes with partisanship. Extreme partisanship is merely one form of ad hominem attack and the only way to deal with it is call everyone on it.

Now, partisans might think my saying that partisanship makes everyone a little crazy is an insult, but, at least I am not singling out one side or the other. I do believe that devotion to a side causes people to make irrational arguments to bolster their sides chance of winning. The irony is that partisans regularly use far stronger language to describe each other than "a little bit crazy," even regularly calling each other Hitlerians, Stalinists, murderers, etc. But, both sides have a special place in hell for moderates – who they often chide as worse than their opponents – even though we agree with them roughly half the time. Now, why is that? Because moderation and independence requires looking at the issues, not the asserter's character or the label and that is the last thing partisans want.

Here’s Andrew Sullivan on partisanship from August, 2007 – Practically every pundit and public intellectual thinks that their pet idea - whether it's neo-Reaganism, Sam's Club Conservatism, or whatever the heck Peter Beinart was selling his fellow liberals - is at once the solution to America's ills and the ticket to a lasting political majority. This can produce some deep silliness, like Linda Hirschman's argument that the repudiation of John Rawls will cement a new Democratic majority, but there's nothing particularly sinister about it. . . .

Too true. Even this month Democrats or liberals will tell you that the Republican Party is finished and Republicans or conservatives say that Obama is on his last legs. Both are silly. After next years election, one of them will get to say, see, we were right - it’s all swinging our way. But, they both have been wrong so many times before, that it is just meaningless to declare victory. It has been swinging back and forth since Washington took office. But, how is it, if people are being rationale, that conservatives come to one belief and liberals another every election? How is it that they routinely are convinced their own side will win even if the polls show the opposite (and the polls are usually right). It is more like rooting for a sport’s team.

The examples of partisan thinking as opposed to ideological thinking are too numerous to list comprehensively. But, I will hazard a few. It may be ideological to believe that abortion is right or wrong, but it is more partisan than not to believe that most pro-life or pro-choice people are evil, stupid or cruel just for disagreeing with your position. It may be ideological to think that Obama’s policies are right or wrong, but it is partisan to say that he is actually a Marxist seeking to make us at least a pre-dominantly socialist country or that those who disagree with him are racist. It may be ideological to like or not like John McCain policies, but it was partisan for conservatives to call him a liberal (he has over 80% lifetime conservative rating according to the rating system relied upon by conservatives) because he sometimes disagrees with them or that he was a Neanderthal right winger who was determined to give us “four more years of Bush” as the two had butted head many times over the eight years of Bush’s terms and McCain was long the favorite Republican of many liberals and least favorite Republican of many conservatives.

It is partisan for liberals to think that Michelle Obama is exceptionally attractive or for conservatives to think she is doesn’t even have a pretty face (I've heard both a number of times). It is ideological to disagree with a president’s policies, but both liberals and conservatives mind when their president’s speech is interrupted and are glad when the other guy’s is – if that isn’t partisan – what is? I’ve never heard the conservatives approve of the Pink Ladies the way many approve of Joe Wilson’s outburst, and never heard the liberals complain about Cindy Sheehan the way they do about Wilson.

Are moderates and independents just smarter than anyone else? No (although partisans on both sides frequently are dismissive of the intelligence of those who disagree with them). But intelligence has little to do with it. All I can claim for myself is that I have made a strong conscious effort for the last half of my life to avoid the knee jerk reactions we all have, however often I may fail in it. I am skeptical about many political things I hear or read until I see what I think is strong evidence of it, and I do not believe it is necessary to have a position on things I just don’t know enough about (which is a lot of things). Example – it took me about ten years to come to my conclusion about the death penalty. I remain ambivalent about global warming although I don’t see any real evidence of it reported or of human contribution to it despite it being stated as a "fact" and find it laughable that people’s views about the climate are so influenced by their political party.

Fence sitting is something that I admire. It is deplored by the more partisan people. They do not want open minds; they want to be told that they are right. Nor do I claim not be without biases. In fact, I believe it is impossible to be without them. One could argue that I am just slow, of course. I accept that criticism. I’d rather be slow than hasty when it comes to policy (but not when ordering from a menu). I notice that conservatives I know tend to believe news stories from the media or blogs they hear which support their positions and liberals their positions. Both know that many things reported turn out to be false or at least exaggerations. If being cynical about the truth of stories that seem to overwhelmingly favor one side over the other is wishy-washy, I’m willing to shoulder that characterization. Non-partisanship is cynical by nature. For the same reason, it is often come to much slower than a partisan one. Is there any other area of thought where people are encouraged not to be deliberate, thoughful and to look at the other side?

I also freely acknowledge my bias towards non-partisanship may be no more a function of my free will than someone else’s partisanship. I believe there is strong evidence that political beliefs are to a large degree emotionally determined. Partisanship itself may also be genetically determined to a large degree. If that doesn’t sound right to you, consider the following study out of the University of California at San Diego (Partisanship, Voting, and the Dopamine D2 Receptor Gene (Dawes & Fowler 2008). It looks formidable, but the central point is easy to make out.

Abstract: Previous studies have found that both political orientations . . . and voting behavior . . . are significantly heritable. In this article we study genetic variation in another important political behavior: partisan attachment. Using the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, we show that individuals with the A1 allele of the D2 dopamine receptor gene are significantly less likely to identify as a partisan than those with the A2 allele. Further, we find that this gene's association with partisanship also mediates an indirect association between the A1 allele and voter abstention. These results are the first to identify a specific gene that may be responsible for the tendency to join political groups, and they may help to explain correlation in parent and child partisanship and the persistence of partisan behavior over time.
Psychological studies rarely make broad conclusions. In fact, like most good studies, these scientists state their “suspicions” or “suggestions” carefully. You can read the study itself, but I offer these two further paragraphs as the gist of it:

While no studies to date have considered a link between specific genes and partisanship, previous association studies have identified genes that are important in shaping personality traits and behaviors integral to instrumental and social psychology theories of partisanship. The social psychology theory of partisanship suggests variation in partisanship can be explained in part by variation in social attachments, whereas instrumental theories suggest that differences in information processing, as well as the level of individual-level noise, are important determinants. Although there are likely to be dozens of genes involved in complex political behavior, here we identify one, the DRD2 dopamine receptor gene, that is believed to play an important role in both the development of social attachments and cognitive functions that may be critical to the formation of partisan ties.

Based on the political science and behavior genetics literature, we hypothesize that the DRD2 gene influences whether or not a person will identify with a political party. Using both case-control and family-based gene association tests, we find that the A1 allele of the DRD2 dopamine receptor gene is significantly associated with partisanship. Specifically, individuals who are homozygous for the A1 allele of the DRD2 gene are 8% less likely to become partisans than those who are homozygous for the A2 allele. Furthermore, this reduction in the likelihood of partisan attachment also mediates a significant negative association between the A1 allele and voter turnout. Finally, tests of cognitive function as a mediator suggest that the DRD2 gene does not influence partisanship via its effect on cognitive function. As a result, we suspect that DRD2 specifically influences partisanship via its effect on mood and social attachment, but more study is needed to elaborate the causal pathways responsible.

They go into much greater detail concerning brain chemistry and it is difficult for most of us to thoroughly analyze it. We don't have the background. With science, of course, there are few final answers and it is an ongoing process of learning. But, one of their conclusions thus far is as follows:

It must be emphasized that we have only found an association and cannot make any causal claims about the relationship between the DRD2 gene and either partisanship or turnout. However, the empirical link between the D2 dopamine receptor and DRD2 gene, as well as the known functions of dopamine in the brain, suggest at least two channels through which the A1 allele may influence partisanship. We hypothesize that difficulty in forming social attachments and impaired cognitive function, both of which have been shown to be associated with the A1 allele, reduce the likelihood an individual will form and/or maintain an attachment with a political party.
Now, the last statement is somewhat obvious when you think about it (much science just confirms or disproves obvious things) but it strikes me in a personal way. Difficulty forming social attachments has always been a hallmark of my life. In fact, the idea of joining a group is close to anathema for me and I had reservations even about nominally joining a bar association just to get better rates on continuing education lectures (although, I did eventually - needed to save the money). I don’t mind being this way, but it is nothing to be proud of either. Does it explain my anti-partisan bias to some extent? Is it wired into me? Certainly there is evidence for it.

The evidence for partisanship affecting reasoning gains ground all the time. A functional mri study out of Emory University (Westen, Etc., 2006) entitled Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning (that's the short version) suggests that when one applies reasoning to a problem threatening to one’s political preferences (that's "motivated reasoning," but you could call it partisan thinking as well) it activates different parts of the brain than it does when cold reasoning is going on, such as putting together a puzzle. That means that partisans on both sides of the aisle are applying one part of their brain when figuring out the best way to get from uptown to downtown, but with another part when deciding whether they believe in global warming or for whom to vote. My belief, and this is a hypothesis, is that the difference will turn out to be that motivated reasoning is result oriented. The person has a result in mind and is reasoning to come to that conclusion, whereas cold reasoning is attempting to find the best solution to a problem. Some day perhaps they will test my hypothesis.

David Brooks of the New York Times, probably my favorite columnist at this time (yes, because he is more moderate than others) loves to cite research to back up his opinions. Recently, he did an article (10/13/09) on neurobiology in which he summarized recent studies indicating, among other things:

that people whose parents had lower social status than others exhibited higher activation in the part of the brain involving emotion;

that Arabs and Jews in Israel had different perceptions of pain when viewing body parts in painful scenarios;

that different areas of the brain were activated when subject watched home teams played baseball as opposed other teams;

that the so-called “reward” centers of the brain were activated by dominant behavior for Americans but submissive behavior by Japanese; and, that our brains are quicker activated by viewing members of a group we identify with undergoing pain than an outsider, even if by milliseconds.

The above studies all tend to support beliefs not only that decisions we perceive as rationale may be much less so than we think but also that culture may deeply affect our reasoning process. Further studies need to be taken to determine if these traits are inherited or social in nature - or both. Brooks also discusses a study suggesting that these reactions can be changed by cognitive therapy (a fancy way to say training). That is, we do not have to be slaves to partisanship.

As I have written in early posts, I believed I was a slave to liberalism when I was young, due to my being raised in that philosophy. I accepted it without much thought and demonized those who thought differently. My conscious training starting in my 20s led me not to be a conservative but to be skeptical and cynical about political (and other) claims and to pay attention to perspectives and frames of reference. It wasn’t easy, but it may be that I got there because I also had a bias for cynicism, moderation and independence. The studies Brooks’ discusses would seem confirm my beliefs, if true, so it is no surprise I pay attention to them and believe the suggestions are correct. David Brooks and I likely share some psychological traits which makes us look for and tend to believe information like this.

I have no problem with the concept that I am biased towards moderation, independence or cynicism. In fact, I recommend them to everyone. Which leads me to one of my two favorite quotes:

Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul – Mark Twain.

Okay, I’ve attacked your belief systems and suggested that "what you think you think" is already programmed into you. I await with pleasure your response (just kidding - usually no one comments when I say something like that).

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

What if?

What if?

What is now history once lay upon the edge of a knife. The slightest twist of fate could have changed everything we know, everything about our lives we take for granted. Whether that would be for good or bad, of course, we can never know, nor how differently history may have turned out. You do not need to accept the butterfly wing theory - that a butterfly beating his wings in Brazil might mean a tornado in Asia, -in order to recognize that if certain persons who arose to greatness at critical moments in history either did not exist, died or had their own circumstances change before that moment arrived, things would be extremely different - perhaps unrecognizably so. The following are just some interesting facts from history that make you say - what would the world be like if just a few little things changed? What ifs are just novelties, although they seem to be a cottage industry, but they can be entertaining all the same, particularly where the actual history is interesting itself.

One day soon after the end of the Revolutionary War, Young Thomas, age 6, and his two older brothers, Mordecai and John, were working in a corn field with their father on one of his 5000 Kentucky acres. He was a former Captain in the Virginia militia during the war and well regarded. At the time, Kentucky, originally part of Virginia, was considered part of the western frontier. Conflicts with Indians were common. Suddenly, while they toiled with the corn, an Indian appeared from out of the woods, and shot the boys’ grandfather, killing him instantly.

The two older boys ran for their lives, but Thomas, still only an infant, merely sat beside his dead grandfather and cried. The attacker came out of the woods, a silver crescent hanging upon his chest, and made his way towards the young boy, perhaps to take him as a prisoner, a slave or to raise him as a son, or maybe to kill him with a blow from a tomahawk or the butt of his gun.

Mordecai, age 14, stopped running, turned and raised his rifle. He aimed for the silver jewelry on the Indian’s chest and fired, killing the brave, and thereby probably saving his little brother’s life or at least preserving for him a future in the culture he grew up in.

The name of the father was Abraham Lincoln, but not the one you are thinking about. But Captain Lincoln, as his men called him, was the father of the father of the future president. The young son crying by his side after he was shot was Thomas, the future president’s father. When the president's Uncle Mordecai saved Thomas’ life, he indirectly saved his future nephew’s life and changed history forever.

What if Uncle Mordecai’s aim had not been so good?

Some might say, it would have been better for our country. The South only seceded upon Lincoln’s election. Maybe they would not have if someone they trusted more had been elected. For example, if Stephen Douglas, who had beat Lincoln out for the 1858 Illinois’ Senate seat, didn't have to face Lincoln, he might have also won the 1860 presidential election and there would have been no reason for the South to Secede. After all, many Southeners voted for him and he had a laissez faire approach towards slavery. Perhaps, indeed, slavery would have come to an end in a few years without the need for the bloodiest war in our history. Some folks suggest that not only would it did not have to occur, but that the hundred year plus struggle of blacks for true liberty in the South would not have occurred either. Of course, they may be all wrong. Perhaps the war would have come upon the next election anyway, or, perhaps no Northern commander-in-chief would have had the stomach to handle the horrifying casualties and steady defeats that occurred and would have made an armistice, basically freeing the South (but not the slaves). There are an infinity of other possibilities and only so much of your patience.

Here is another story which shows how subtly history may change.

The young man was proud of his little flat bottomed boat. One day two prospective passengers on a steamer anchored in the middle of the river asked him if he would row them out to it with their luggage. He obliged and even loaded their luggage for them. The young man was known for his kindness and did it without thought of reward.

So he was stunned when both of the gentlemen threw him a half dollar and much later said it had been a very important moment in his life. He thereafter performed the same services for a few other people when he found himself in trouble. He was called before the Justice of the Peace and charged with ferrying without a license, a complaint brought by a family that felt they had a monopoly on it.

The young man appeared himself and pleaded innocent. His only defense was that he was only helping passengers on his side of the river, not taking them all the way across. Sure enough, when the Justice looked at the law, it turned out he was right. It only prohibited unlicensed persons from ferrying from one side of the river to the other. Case dismissed.

Now that young man actually was the future President Abraham Lincoln himself. What if he had been convicted? It is neither inconceivable or even unlikely that the Justice of the Peace could have interpreted the statute differently or never never bothered to look at the statute itself. How much would it have changed Lincoln’s life and his future had he been convicted? If you think this is too small of an incident to consider as life changing, then consider this - no president had ever been elected who was previously convicted until George W Bush was in 2000, a much, much more tolerant era when it comes to youthful indiscretions (not that he was that young). If you know of another president who had been convicted and I missed, let me know. That’s what comments are for.

Lincoln was also almost killed when he was just nineteen years old and on a commercial raft trip with another young man down in New Orleans. Seven men attacked their boat in what appeared to Lincoln to be an attempt to both murder and rob them. Lincoln, of course, was famous for his great height and strength and his friend, after poling much of the 1200 plus miles on the Ohio River and the powerful Mississippi must have been no slouch either. The two of them fought the attackers off and survived.

Years later, in his thirties, Lincoln was challenged to a duel by a well known and quite deadly soldier named James Shields, who felt Lincoln had slandered him. The story of how that ended I have already blogged about (10/23/07), and, leave it to your perusal if you are interested. Of course, Lincoln wasn’t the only one whose life hung in the balance.

In another recent post here (8/20/09) I quoted from George Washington's own journal of a perilous crossing of a river strewn with fast moving blocks of ice into the path of which he was hurled, almost losing his life, and his companion's journal which described how an Indian they were traveling with shot at Washington at close range and missed, both events taking place during the French and Indian War. But Washington escaped death so many times before he became father of our country, we could do this entire post on him. He was shot at numerous times without unfortunate result in both of his wars, nearly froze to death, managed to survive the mumps, smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid, infection, the flu, dysentery and pneumonia, all of which were regularly fatal back in those days. He dodged death so many times that instead of telling about one of those, I'll relate instead an incident where he might have been facing death, but certainly the Revolution almost faltered. Either way, our lives would be much different today.

On September 18, 1780, Benedict Arnold, who Washington once called his "finest officer," met with Washington and Alexander Hamilton near his base at West Point (when it was a critically important fort, not a school). Washington was traveling with his staff and a very small Life Guard. At one point, ferrying across the Hudson, Washington and co. (even Lafayette and the artillery chief, Henry Knox) came within cannon shot of the nearby British ship, The Vulture. Had the Captain known it was Washington, he undoubtedly would have fired at him or moved in to capture him. At the meeting Arnold asked Washington just when he would be returning to West Point. He was told it was to be six days later, the 24th. The traitorous Arnold signalled the British signalled the British in code when Washington would return. He had already been negotiating to turn over West Point and thousands of troops and had lied to Washington about the state of its defenses, which were terrible as opposed to formidable.

One of my favorite Revolutionary era historical characters, a man with the almost impossibly heroic name of Hercules Mulligan, was a spy for Washington in New York City where he pretended to be a loyalist while the British controlled it. He had already advised Washington that one of his own generals was a spy (obviously, that was Arnold). Now he learned that British troops were indeed headed up river and warned Washington about that. One of the British officers Arnold contacted was a charming and talented intelligence officer, but ultimately unfortunate man named Major John Andre, who went up towards West Point to meet with Arnold in secret, traveling out of uniform. Arnold waited at West Point for his prey, who was supposed to show for breakfast Saturday.

Hamilton showed up with one of Lafayette’s staff and they breakfasted with Arnold. Washington, he explained, would be delayed but would be there later. During breakfast Arnold got an express from a courier. He learned that Major Andre had been captured and papers with Arnold's name on them discovered. In fact, Andre had been waylaid by some brigands (some say deserters from the American Army) who were robbing loyalists and Andre's secret papers were discovered by them in his boot. He was also informed that papers, which he knew would incriminate him, were on their way to General Washington. Without letting anyone know what he was doing, Arnold excused himself, told his wife to burn their papers and to stall his guests, while he left the house and commandeered a boat. Later, when Washington arrived, he received the papers Andre was carrying and ordered Hamilton after Arnold. It was too late. He was already on a British ship - The Vulture.

While still at the house, Hamilton had heard Arnold’s wife shrieking upstairs. She played the role of a madwoman and fooled Hamilton and Washington completely. They let go and never suspected her. Her role in the espionage, which was extensive, was not discovered until the last century. But Major Andre was hung as a spy.

There are some questions about whether the British really were going to try and take Washington and his men in addition to capturing the fort for which they already agreed to pay Arnold a very large sum of money. There is a paucity of evidence of it on the British side, but, given the fact that Washington, upon visiting West Point, would (and did) discover the awful condition the fort was in, he certainly would know Arnold was lying to him and probably would have figured out he was the traitorous general Hercules Mulligan warned him about. Why would Arnold have taken this risk unless he Washington was to be quickly captured? On the other hand, if that was the case, why didn't Arnold execute his plan anyway. It is all lost in the mists of time and the fog of war, to overwhelm you with cliche. However, we know that many important figures at the time believed that Washington was the target, including Lafayette and Henry Laurens, then president of congress.

What if Andre wasn't captured and the plot uncovered. Both Washington and the British knew if West Point fell, the Americans would be split in half and the war all but over. Arnold, in fact, had been completely false to Washington as to the condition of West Points' defenses. If Washington, not to mention his staff, had been made British prisoners, perhaps executed in London, the war would quite possibly have been over in 1780, even if West Point wasn't taken. Even if matters caused Washington not to head back up to West Point, it would have soon been taken and war ended. As another alternative, what if Washington had perished or was rendered unable to serve in one of his earlier adventures or succumbed to one of his illnesses. As strange as it might seem to us now, it is not that unlikely that the brave and competent Benedict Arnold, who craved recognition from his countrymen, would have been turned to early on in the War as a leader and we would be recognizing Benedict Arnold as a founder, if the not the father of our country.

Many presidents have narrowly escaped death. But, if Benjamin Pierce had been killed when his carriage crashed on the way to D.C., taking his son’s life, or, if Andrew Jackson died in one of his bloody duels or in the assassination attempt on him when he was president, for example, I doubt the world would have been very different. But Washington’s and Lincoln were extraordinary men and their absence or disappearence would have had enormous consequences.

Here are a couple more "what ifs" which might have had changed our history dramatically.

The rotund British author was visiting New York City a little before Christmas, 1931, on a lecture tour.

Already a disgraced government official who had had an exciting life including a life of risk in the Boer War and WWI, in 1929 he had lost a ton of money in the Great Crash. Now he was on his way to see an old friend, the famous financier, Bernard Baruch. But, while walking to Baruch’s place on Fifth Avenue, he looked the wrong way crossing the street and was struck by a passing car.

He was thrown into the gutter and suffered a serious head wound. He went to the Bahamas to recuperate but then caught a form of typhoid fever.

But he survived all of it.

Good thing. The fortunate pedestrian was soon to be leading the last stand in Europe against Nazism. Without Winston Churchill bracing Britain, it is possible both that she would not have survived Germany’s assault on her or that the United States would not have put so much effort into defeating Germany when Japan was considered her real enemy by so many of our citizens. Perhaps without Churchill's iron will, Britain would have sought an early armistice. Although I believe that the good guys would have won in the long run, Churchill was more than just instrumental, and his special relationship with Roosevelt, his own American heritage, his indomitable spirit, and ability to motivate the British people not to mention Americans, were critical. Not for nothing, Churchill sometimes tops opinion polls of the 20th century’s greatest man, and, in fact, won this blog’s award (the most coveted of all such awards - 5/9/07) as well.

But what if the driver had been going just a little bit faster or had hit him more squarely in the front of the car?

Last one.

Just two years after Churchill’s accident, an Italian immigrant named Giuseppe Zangara was down in Florida. He was an anarchist, believing that no government was the best government. He was not only out of work but had just lost a couple of hundred dollars at the dog races. He purchased a 38 caliber pistol and went to the park to hunt a particular human one day. It wasn't a fair fight as his prey was crippled. Zangara stood up on a chair just 25 feet away from his target and opened fire. He got off five shots before a bystander knocked his hand away and he fell off his chair.

He hit some people, but missed his main target, in fact managed to gravely wound the mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak. It took only 5 days to convict Zangara who was sentenced to 80 years in prison. Then the mayor died of his wounds. Zangara was tried for murder and convicted. His execution quickly followed.

The very fortunate main target was then president-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Because Zangara missed, and we tend to remember only successful assassination attempts, people forget how close FDR came to missing his dates with destiny – both the depression and WWII.

What if Zangara had gotten closer or been a better shot or waited until he was closer?

We might have a clue to this since we know who the Vice President-elect was. John Garner was also a Democrat, but he was a southern Democrat, and had very different ideas about policy than FDR. There probably would not have been a New Deal – for better or worse – as Garner was against it. Who can say how he would have dealt with WWII as he was out of office before the war actually started and Roosevelt would not have given him any real role anyway. Unlike Roosevelt, Garner was very committed to the two presidential term custom and actually ran against him in the primaries (losing badly). But, had Garner been president instead of Roosevelt, would he have found reason to run again himself as WWII loomed. Also, unlike Roosevelt, Garner would have lived through the whole war too. He didn't until he was nearly 99 years old in 1967, exceeding by far the life span of all other presidents or vice presidents. Ironically, If FDR had died while president-elect not only would he be virtually unknown today, but possibly we never would have heard of George Marshall, or Dwight Eisenhower or many others for whose fame FDR was directly or indirectly responsible. Perhaps not even Winston Churchill. If there was a short war, perhaps the atomic bomb never would have been created, or for many decades.

Of course, some might argue we'd have been better off as FDR has his critics. Some say that the New Deal was the wrong way to handle the bad economy and made it worse. Some also say that regardless of how we did in the war, Roosevelt's giveaway to Stalin at Yalta set up a much longer war, albeit a cold one. However, most people feel Roosevelt did well, and there can be no doubt his life has been quite consequential.

Roosevelt, Churchill, Washington and Lincoln all came within a hair’s breadth of losing their life or, in Lincoln’s case, to not even being born. They were arguably the four most important men in the English speaking world since America’s inception. You can play what if with anyone about almost anything, but the virtually unique importance of these four men and the dramatic ways they almost disappeared from history makes it a somewhat more interesting consideration.

But, the truth is, I just like to talk about interesting history I come across, and what ifs are as good an excuse as any.

Thursday, October 01, 2009


I find great websites all the time. Today, I just want to talk about a few that just appeal to me because I like their subject matter.

One of my favorites sites lately is FIRE, short for Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a foundation advocating freedom of speech in education. Few things get me as riled up as first amendment violations, and frequently FIRE has an article that just makes me mad.

Take this case documenting what looks like a disturbing power play by a Georgian State college to stifle all dissent by their employees. Thomas Thibeault was a professor at East Georgia College. According to FIRE, during a seminar on sexual harassment he complained that the school’s policy had no protection for people who were falsely accused. The school’s vp for legal affairs, Smith, replied that there was, in fact, no protection for them. Thibeault said he thought that made the policy unfair. Seems like they agreed, no?

Apparently not.

Two days later Thibeault was called to the presidents office, where President Black, along with VP Smith, confronted him. President Black essentially fired him – well sort of fired him, as you will see. FIRE provides a copy of Thibeault’s letter to Black and Smith giving details of the meeting, of which I include a part here:

You commenced the meeting by stating that I was a divisive force in the college at a time when the college needed unity for the forthcoming SACS inspection. You then informed me that you were canceling my present contract and all future contracts on the grounds of sexual harassment. You claimed that I have a “long history os (sic) sexual harassment which includes smutty jokes, foul language, obscenities, and innuendo.

I asked you for proof of these allegations, and you stated that, if you received my resignation by 11:30, nothing more would be done and that you would provide me with a good reference for my next teaching position. If you did not receive my resignation by 11:30, you would dismiss me and that my ‘long history of sexual harassment would be made public.’

His letter also states that he was told he would be escorted off the campus and that the sheriff was informed if he was found on the campus to arrest him for trespass.

Thibeault was a teacher at a State college, which is required to apply due process under Georgia’s law, not to have professors escorted off campus and threatened with arrest because the president thinks he’s not a team player. It gets crazier, according to the FIRE article.

On August 25 the president wrote Thibeault again, claiming for the first time that Thibeault had actually been suspended, not fired: "[T]he committee's finding was that there is sufficient evidence to support your suspension." The letter also stated that Thibeault was going to be terminated because of "sexual harassment," that he could obtain the charges upon request and also request a hearing. So, he requested a copy of the charges a few days later, and, of course, did not get a response. His lawyer had the same result.

Of course, I have no idea whether Thibeault is a celibate monk or leers at his student. But, if FIRE is even remotely accurate here, then the school’s process, unfairly depriving professors of their jobs, might be worse than many cases of actual harassment, unless you think a boss abusing his power by unfairly taking someone's job is okay. My question is, what will happen to Black (not to mention Smith) if Thibeault’s facts are borne out? I'd like to think it would be severe, and that they was dismissed himself or at least severely chastised and required to apologize for his bullying and rule violations. Of course, in real life, that won’t happen at all, which is why organizations like FIRE are so necessary.

Whatever the result is, my point here is really just that it’s a terrific website, whose mission is one I can get behind. There are also articles on FIRE this past month about Yale’s decision to remove cartoons characterizations of Mohammad in a book which is actually ABOUT THOSE CARTOONS (you all remember the hullaballoo in Denmark over these cartoons, including death threats), another one on Virginia Tech’s coercive requirement that professors produce research supporting Tech’s diversity policy (FIRE takes no position on the policy; only on the coercion); University of Idaho’s speech code prohibiting “insensitive” speech (I know people who think any public mention of ethnicity, skin color, gender, etc., is insensitive at best, if not outright bias); and, a similar one at James Madison University where students may be punished for "lewd, indecent or obscene conduct and expression" - naturally, no definition for lewd or indecent is given - as FIRE points out, the school's explanation that it is only to prohibit illegal conduct like public urination or masturbation doesn't explain why "expression" is also prohibited.

I don’t need to check FIRE everyday, but once a week or so does the trick.

Another site I’ve discovered lately is on the pardon power and the related power of presidents and governors to grant clemency, reducing a sentence. It is run/owned by Professor P. S. Ruckman, Jr. (and I can’t find his full name anywhere), who has a Ph.d in political science and is an associate professor at Rock Valley College in Illinois. He is also one of one of the few experts in pardons in the country.

Pardons usually become exciting only at the end of a president’s term as the media and political opponents wonder which of his cronies, supporters, etc., will get a pass. Clinton’s Mark Rich pardon (which did Rich little good and Clinton much bad) and Bush’s clemency for Scooter Libby are well known examples.

Ruckman has written heavily not just on presidential pardons but keeps us informed as to what is going on in each state. The pardon power is, of course, an awesome one. It can be sweeping (Carter pardoning all those who fled the draft during Vietnam; Andrew Johnson pardoning the confederates), it can be obviously political (Nixon pardoned supporter George Steinbrenner or Clinton's of Mark Rich); and astonishing (Carter pardoning unapologetic Puerto Rican terrorists - one of whom had tried to kill President Truman and who was indirectly responsible for a security officer’s death in doing so; Clinton pardoned Puerto Rican terrorists too). It can also be an act of mercy that it was meant to be, such as where terminally ill persons are allowed to go home to die or to receive medical treatment.

What’s interesting about Ruckman’s site is that it is so comprehensive, both he and his associates having made a scholarly inquiry into the subject. The stats are fun and overwhelming (I’ll obey the request on his blog not to cut and paste).

For example, he breaks down George Bush’s pardons by State. He didn't pardon very many people but when he did, 17 were from his home state, Texas, which received by far the most. Of the top eleven states having prisoners receiving pardons from Bush, nearly two thirds are from the 11 states which were in the Confederacy, as was Texas. Nearly 70 percent came from red states as were 80 percent of the top ten. Of the states that received only 1 pardon, 7 of the 11 had gone blue in his last presidential election, including some very populous states with lots of prisoners. Total pardons received by blue states – 47; Total received by red states – 105. He’s not suggesting Bush was more political than any of his predecessors and, if Ruckman has a political persuasion, I can’t tell from the site what it is. But, can it be said that this power was placed in the Constitution for the president to get to score political points. I think not. Athough there was already a federalist/anti-federalist split in the founders, parties didn't exist yet the way they would just a few years later. A separate article reprinted in Ruckman's blog suggests that the power has only recently morphed from an exercise in checks and balances into the president’s personal prerogative.

Here’s some more from the site – of all of our presidents, the two main World War presidents, Wilson and Roosevelt, made by far the most pardons. Since LBJ, the number of pardons presidents grant have substantially shrunken. In the last two of FDR’s terms (the last term mostly Truman’s), more pardons were granted than all of the pardons from Reagan through Bush put together. Since Carter left office, Clinton has granted the most, but still quite few compared to all presidents since the Civil War.

I got turned onto the site after reading a scathing article by Ruckman on the congressional testimony given by “experts” to congress after the Clinton “last minute” pardon scandal, the one which included the pardon to Mark Rich. Ruckman was not defending the Rich pardon, but he showed that if you actually look at the statistics, the experts who testified were anything but expert. In fact, despite their testimony that Clinton’s pardons did not fit a historical pattern, the actual statistics show quite the opposite. The problem was, as he pointed out, those who testified claimed to be basing their opinions on history, but cited almost no facts at all. If you've ever watched congressional hearings, that is hardly a surprise. Apparently, they just had no idea of what the truth was and based their opinions on what they thought might be the case. I find it curious that the "expert" Ruckman most heavily criticized for inaccuracy at the hearings, Margaret Colgrave Love, who had worked in the Justice Department’s pardon department, is listed on the sidebar of among its lists of experts. After the bashing he gives her in his article, I’d like to see that mystery unraveled.

Go to the site, if you have any interest in these things and spend as many hours as you like reading it. You won’t exhaust the amount of information there. It’s like reading Wikipedia but just on one topic.

A couple of years ago I found this truly amazing website hosted by Tufts University (with contributions and support from many other sources). Perseus collects many ancient texts of the Greek and Roman world and translates them in a word by word clickable fashion. It also provides dictionaries and commentaries for most of their collection. It is a revolutionary tool that allows you to translate, as examples, Aristophanes, Tacitus or even the Bible, word by bloody word.

This might not excite everyone, but it will language lovers and it excites the bejabbers out of me. What it does is open the doors of knowledge that previously could only be enjoyed by a handful of scholars, the same way the internet has opened up trading on the stock market to any idiot who wants to gamble his money away.

Let’s jump, just for fun, to Perseus’s table of contents and then scroll down to the Bible under “World English Bible,” then to the Old Testament Book of Judges (from whence, e.g., the story of Sampson) in the Latin translation of St. Jerome. I choose St. Jerome, one of the "fathers" of the Catholic Church, because his efforts in revising the existing Latin translations of the Bible paved the way for translations in so many other languages, just as Perseus has done in a different way. When completed, the translation became known as the "Vulgate" or common text.

So, I click on the Vulgate version and up pops the Latin translation for Judges. Then, I choose, not quite randomly, the second word, mortem, because it looks familiar, and I’m guessing almost certainly has something to do with death, as in "mortician" and even "Morticia," of Addams family fame.


A word study box pops up. It tells me that the root – Mors – does indeed mean death (that was an easy one), and that mortem is in the feminine, singular and accusative case (which, if you care, is basically the direct object of a transitive verb). You can also connect to Charlton T. Lewis’ An Elementary Latin Dictionary for more information. But, even without doing that, the word study tool box tells me that the word appears 458 times out of the some six hundred and fifty thousand words in the database. In all of the Latin texts, out of nearly four and a half million words, it appears 2168 times or 6.27 times per 10,000 words.

Tell me that doesn't get your heart pumping. No? Maybe I'm a little strange.

I click on the number 2168 and I am taken to a page which lists for me every single usage of the word in their database. The first entry is from Cicero, and when I click on that entry, poof, there is a Latin translation for that text with again every world clickable to a dictionary translation. Perseus also highlights Mors wherever it is found in the text I pulled up.

Of course, you can just skip all that word for word translation and just read any of these ancient texts in the full English translation that you can also access with a click, not to mention commentaries and related texts all linked to most every word. No library you or I could get to without tremendous inconvenience could ever be so handy and make these great texts available to us. It would take a huge library just to collect the texts, and even then reference works wouldn't be just a click away.

Here’s a selection of authors you can do all this with on Perseus (my favorites in bold): Aeschylus, Appian, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Caesar Augustus, Julius Caesar, Bede, Catullus, Cicero, Demosthenes, Epictetus, Euclid, Euripides, Herodotus, Hesiod, Homer, Livy, Lucretius, Horace, Pindar, Plato, Plautus, Plutarch, Sophocles, Tacitus, Thucydides, both Testaments and Xenophon. I just gave names that are somewhat familiar to most interested people, but there are many others.

The name Perseus was inspired. Perseus was one of Greece’s greatest mythological heroes, the one who cut off the head of the dreaded snake-coiffed Medusa, whose mere look could turn a man to stone. Scholars often try to guess where the names of mythological characters come from, but I emphasize the word guess, as, although there is knowledge involved, it is hardly a science, even though it is often stated with great certainty. The best guess for the meaning of Perseus is “destroyer” or “sacker” (as in, they sacked the city), from Perth- (“-eus” being a typical Greek male ending as in - Zeus).

But this post is really about websites and I can’t start talking about mythology or I’ll never get back on track. A similar site to Perseus is the, a cite that has a search engine for 14 different translations of the Bible, as well as tons of study aids, charts, lists, summaries, encyclopedias, etc.

I recognize that the first amendment, pardon power and translations are subjects which interest me and might leave others cold. Let me know what websites have you fascinated these days. And no, my friends, I wasn't referring to porn.

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 . . . .