Archive for June, 2011
The issue of national sovereignty of the United States over the states is “indistinct, simple, and inflexible. … It is an issue which can only be tried by war, and decided by victory.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1864
“If Lincoln had been a failure, he would have lived a longer life.” — James McPherson on John Wilkes Booth’s promise to “put him through” while listening to a victory speech from Lincoln on April 11, 1865
Unlike other Lincoln biographies, which typically focus on his stance and political efforts to abolish slavery, his assassination, his humble upbringings and other topics, few, as McPherson points out, have delved specifically into Lincoln’s role as commander in chief. He was in the War Department, for instance, sending off messages and commands to his generals in the field almost more than he was anywhere else in his four-year tenure. He was the only commander in chief whose entire presidency up to that point was bookended by war. He guided the nation through the most perilous and bloody era it has ever known. This book tackles the challenges Lincoln faced in dealing with his often-slow-moving generals (i.e. McClellan, Hooker and Rosecrans), riots in New York, black troops in the military and the long effort to defeat Lee and capture Richmond, Atlanta, Vicksburg and other Confederate strongholds.
The book depicts a president intricately involved with the movements of his troops on the battlefield. Lincoln was not a military scientist, so he studiously took up the task of self-learning strategy and often dictated to his generals how he wanted Lee’s and other armies to be pursued and quelled. Unfortunately for Lincoln, McClellan and numerous generals in succession often languished in the field, constantly asking for more troops and supplies before they could proceed, all the while, Lincoln goading them to get moving. One of the most disappointing failures of McClellan was his dilly-dallying in letting Lee escape in the Shenandoah Valley campaign.
The day will come, when the mystic generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as His Father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. — Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, April 11, 1823
I recently completed the second biography of Thomas Jefferson that deals specifically with his religion (I have read three Jefferson biographies in total). It is called “The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson” by Charles Sanford and presents a rather exhaustive review of the third president’s personal letters to friends and family and other statements about Jesus, the nature of man, the afterlife and other theological issues.
Even today, Christian apologists, politicians, cable news talking heads, modern deists, agnostics and atheists have tried to adopt Jefferson and other American founders as their own, claiming, or not depending on the worldview, the Founders essentially wanted to establish a nation with God or Jesus as its centerpiece, or at the least, create a nation based upon Christian or Judeo-Christian principles. The simple fact is that, at least publicly, most of the Founders were either Congregationalists, Presbyterians or Episcopalians with varying degrees of religious devotion. Here is a list that details each of their specific affiliations. Except for those, like Jefferson, who wrote a great deal about religion in private correspondence, we can say little about what they really believed in their private lives and in their hearts, just as we can little about what Bill Clinton or Barack Obama and Georgia W. Bush really believe. Their outward expressions of faith or participation in church services or public prayers speaks little to what they actually believe behind closed doors or what they write about to friends and family.
That said, Jefferson passed along, and in abundant detail, clues as to his true feelings on religion. We can be grateful that these letters and other statements on religion survived, since knowing the true religiosity of arguably the greatest historical American figure is of utmost importance if we are to make any broader claims as to the true wishes of the Founders on the topic of religion and the separation of church and state.
Most people don’t realize that solar activity can have a profound effect on certain operations on Earth, ranging from drilling for oil, power grids, railway signaling and other areas of industry.
The United States and Great Britain last month decided to collaborate to create a space weather warning system, which will be able to more accurately predict the sun’s activity. The sun is currently in a slow or relatively quiet weather pattern. Scientists expect to see more intense solar activity in the coming years.
Here is an article from The New York Times with more details:
… Modern society depends on a variety of technologies that are susceptible to the extremes of space weather. Spectacular explosions on the Sun’s surface produce solar storms of intense magnetism and radiation. These events can disrupt the operation of power grids, railway signaling, magnetic surveying and drilling for oil and gas. Magnetic storms also heat the upper atmosphere, changing its density and composition and disrupting radio communications and GPS units. The storms’ charged particles can be a hazard to the health of astronauts and passengers on high altitude flights.
Severe storms in 1989 and 2003 caused blackouts in Canada and Sweden. In 1859, a solar super storm sparked fires in telegraph offices. Such storms are predicted every century or so, and perhaps we’re overdue. According to a 2008 National Academies report, a once-in-a-century solar storm could cause the financial damage of 20 Hurricane Katrinas.
A quiet Sun causes its own problems. During the two-year quiet spell, our upper atmosphere, normally heated and inflated by the Sun’s extreme ultraviolet radiation, cooled off and shrank. This altered the propagation of GPS signals and slowed the rate of decay of space debris in low Earth orbit. In addition, the cosmic rays that are normally pushed out to the fringes of the solar system by solar explosions instead surged around Earth, threatening astronauts and satellites with unusually high levels of radiation.
The more we know about solar activity, the better we can protect ourselves. The Sun is surrounded by a fleet of spacecraft that can see sunspots forming, flares crackling and a solar storm about 30 minutes before it hits Earth. NASA and the National Science Foundation have also developed sophisticated models to predict where solar storms will go once they leave the Sun, akin to National Weather Service programs that track hurricanes and tornadoes on Earth. Thanks to these sentries, it is increasingly difficult for the Sun to take us by surprise.
In reference to an earlier post in which I made light of Sarah Palin’s gaffe about Paul Revere riding through Boston to warn the British, not the colonists, about the former’s movements, I need to make a concession, but only a minor one. It is true that when and only when Revere was confronted and captured by the British, he indeed told them
there would be five hundred Americans there in a short time for I had alarmed the Country all the way up
in his letter to Jeremy Belknap.
Either by accident or a stroke of luck, Palin was technically correct that at some point along his ride, Revere told the British about the American troops.
But she remains solidly wrong in suggesting — and she unequivocally does — that warning the British was the main point of Revere’s trip. The main objective of his trip was to warn the American colonists. Presumably, getting captured by the British was not part of Revere’s plans that day, since he tried to elude them. Seeking out the enemy just to warn them of the American militia would have been silly. One can imagine the conversation going something like this:
Revere: Here ye! Here ye, damned British! The American militia is just up the way, and it is going to deal you a decisive blow!
British officer: That’s great, mate! You are now a prisoner of the British army. Answer my questions or I will blow your brains out. (Indeed, a British major did tell Revere that he would shoot him if he didn’t answer his questions)
We can only assume Revere was bright enough to know that actively seeking out enemy forces just to warn them of their impending demise would be counterproductive at best, and I doubt he much enjoyed being told he was under the gun if he didn’t cooperate.
While militia did fire off some rounds that Revere said startled the British, there’s no record that Revere himself fired any rounds, and there’s no mention of “bells” in Revere’s letter. Revere and other riders warned the colonists quietly with lanterns, not with guns or bells. Again, the idea was secrecy. Town bells did ring once the British were near Lexington, and one of the captured riders (not Revere) did say:
The bell’s a’ringing! The town’s alarmed, and you’re all dead men!
The British then turned back to warn their commanders. In my last post on this topic, I noted that Revere indeed told the British there were 500 Americans on the way, but I just wanted to clarify the point since some historians have now claimed that Palin was indeed correct. My contention remains. While she may have been correct that Revere warned the British at some point that night, warning the British couldn’t have been farther from Revere’s goal, but a residual effect of him getting captured. Secrecy was the game.
In this opinion piece, Costica Bradatan, assistant professor in the Honors College at Texas Tech University, examines how philosophers and thinkers through the ages have dealt with the reality of their own demise:
It happened to Socrates, Hypatia, Thomas More, Giordano Bruno, Jan Patočka, and a few others. Due to an irrevocable death sentence, imminent mob execution or torture to death, these philosophers found themselves in the most paradoxical of situations: lovers of logic and rational argumentation, silenced by brute force; professional makers of discourses, banned from using the word; masters of debate and contradiction, able to argue no more. What was left of these philosophers then? Just their silence, their sheer physical presence. The only means of expression left to them, their own bodies — and dying bodies at that.
Philosophers, he says, generally follow two patterns. First, they “display a certain contempt toward the body” because most of them spend their lives thinking about matters that transcend their own bodies, their own lives and in many cases, their own generations. Second, many of them tend to gravitate toward unbelief in gods or the supernatural, like Hypatia, so when confronted with their own deaths, they are pushed into what is called a “limit-situation,” whereby they either will hold firm in their disbelief to the end or they abandon them, thus abandoning a life’s worth of thinking. Bradatan frames it thusly:
… it boils down to the following dilemma: if you decide to remain faithful to your views, you will be no more. Your own death will be your last opportunity to put your ideas into practice. On the other hand, if you choose to “betray” your ideas (and perhaps yourself as well), you remain alive, but with no beliefs to live by.
Essentially, the question is this: how do philosophers deal with the natural fear of death that overtakes us all at one time or another. Believers say that faith in seeing their loved ones or being able to live forever in heaven or to meet Jesus, etc., gives them comfort and helps them deal with their own impending exit stage right. But for many philosophers, no such comfort exists, and for some of them, I dare say, gaining personal comfort wasn’t the goal to begin with. Or, in Bradatan’s quotable words:
Tell me how you deal with your fear of annihilation, and I will tell you about your philosophy.
Bradatan also writes about the performance “art” of dying, noting the cases of Socrates, who offed himself before the state could and Hypatia, who was stripped naked by a Christian mob and executed in the Caesarion church using “broken pits of pottery.” The latter’s death, depicted in the movie, “Agora” (I wrote a review of it here) is neither “exquisite,” “passionate” or fascinating, as Bradatan claims, but it does make the point. Hypatia at the time of her death was a scholar of, perhaps 45 years old, who was fascinated with astronomy, math and philosophy. She was the last librarian at the Library of Alexandria and held all the promise of becoming one of the greatest thinkers of her time or any other before religious thugs saw to it that she would meet a grisly demise. All, no less, under the gaze of an absent god, as ever.
Was she prepared emotionally and mentally to meet her end on that day in March 415? Had she considered adopting the relatively new religion of Christianity? Likely not, but certainly these questions must have at least flittered through her mind at one time or another, as it does with all sentient beings destined to exit this world in darkness just as they entered.
So how do we meet death squarely in the face without flinching? Not without a good dose of courage, but Bradatan offers some clues in conclusion:
Perhaps that to be a philosopher means more than just being ready to “suffer” death, to accept it passively at some indefinite point in time; it may also require one to provoke his own death, to meet it somehow mid-way. That’s mastering death. Philosophy has sometimes been understood as “an art of living,” and rightly so. But there are good reasons to believe that philosophy can be an “art of dying” as well.
This scaled-down version doesn’t quite do it justice, but here is a shot from NASA of the planet at night (Nov. 27, 2000), showing both densely populated and developed regions versus less urban parts of Africa, South America, Asia and elsewhere:
I know I’m being a little dated here, but I wanted to briefly address this Sarah Palin/Paul Revere business. For anyone unfamiliar with the story, here’s the incriminating video:
Here, Palin indicates, while on a stop in Boston no less, that Paul Revere rode through town to
warn the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and making sure as he’s riding through town (bizarre change in pitch) to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free.
She later defended her comments on FOX News (appropriately, the only news channel to which she will grant interviews) with this retort to critics:
I know my American history … part of his ride was to warn the British that were already there, that, ‘Hey, you’re not going to succeed. You’re not going to take American arms. You are not going to beat our own well-armed persons, individual private militia that we have.’ He did warn the British.”
Sure. She knows her history. After more than one nudging by Glenn Beck (Glenn Beck no less!), she couldn’t name one of the Founding Fathers outside of George Washington and said that all of them were her favorite (I doubt she would have agreed much with Thomas Jefferson). She also gave the same ludicrously broad answer (“All of them”) when Katie Couric, again more than once, asked her to name just one newspaper or magazine that she regularly consulted. Further, she couldn’t name one Supreme Court case other than Roe v. Wade with which she disagreed:
Back to Revere, here is a letter written by the rider himself to Jeremy Belknap. In it, Revere tells of how he was trying evade the British while warning the colonists of their movements. Conspicuously absent from the letter is any mention of him ringing bells or firing shots to warn the households, as per Palin’s account. He was part of a committee with
the purpose of watching the Movements of the British Soldiers, and gaining every intelegence of the movements of the Tories. We held our meetings at the Green-Dragon Tavern. We were so carefull that our meetings should be kept Secret; that every time we met, every person swore upon the Bible, that they would not discover any of our transactions …
Later in the letter, he recalled how he narrowly escaped some British soldiers but was eventually captured. He then told the British how 500 Americans were on the way after he had warned the colonists of British actions. This L.A. Times article asks whether this is what Palin meant:
So was Revere warning the British that he had warned the Colonists? Is that what the prospective presidential candidate meant? Was Revere serving notice (at gunpoint)?
But Palin was clearing talking about Revere’s ride in the above quote from the FOX News interview (“part of his ride was to warn the British”), not whatever Revere said after being captured. Some Palin supporters have went so far as to erroneously modify Paul Revere’s Wikipedia entry to more closely reflect Palin’s cartoon-like account. Palin’s followers will seemingly do anything to make sure their star stays above board intellectually. But it’s really too late for that. She has disgraced herself repeatedly, and I hope that a majority of Americans understand the kind intellectual absentee that she is if she becomes an official candidate for president.
I have felt a bit out of the blogging groove as of late. Even in years past when I have left town for vacation, I still found time for a post or two, as in 2008 when I wrote from Boston about the presidential debate between then-candidates Barack Obama and John McCain or in 2010 when I marveled about how difficult it was for a tourist like myself to get a clear view of the ocean on the coast of Maine.
So, let me briefly review what I’ve been up to the last couple weeks. As I hinted, I was on vacation in New England last week. Unlike in 2010 or 2008 (or the time before that), I didn’t bother to actually go into the city this time. My friend lives about 10 minutes north of Boston on the North Shore, so I mostly stayed in that general area, visiting numerous used book stores in Rowley, Manchester-by-the-Sea and Danvers. Among them were the Used Book Superstore, (This is a chain store, but the one I visited was in Danvers), Broken in Books (Rowley) and my favorite, Manchester by the Book (Manchester-by-the-Sea). In total, I came back to Georgia with seven books, and while I did visit Barnes & Noble once in Peabody, Mass., I resisted the urge to buy any brand new books. Prior to making it to Boston, I stayed over a couple days in Plymouth, where I drove past but did not actually see, what others described as “unimpressive” rock of that town’s fame.
I have also been reading quite a bit. Since the editor of the paper where I work seems fond of calculating the completion percentage of whatever history book through which he’s currently plowing (I believe he’s at 90 percent), I recently tabulated mine. I am about 72 percent done with From Sea to Shining Sea (not to be confused with this one), the former of which is a 600-page romp through the War of 1812, the war with Mexico and America’s westward expansion. It is an elegant and entertaining read and not so erudite that it’s inaccessible to the common reader. I plan to begin “The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson” next, which will no doubt make the incontrovertible case that while Jefferson made outward shows toward religion, he was privately more likely a deist and did not believe in the various miracles attributed to Christ. According to Charles Sanford:
From the evidence of his life, we may safely conclude that Jefferson remained a member in good standing of his local Episcopal church all his life, in outward form at least. His inward convictions were another matter, however. His great-grandson described Jefferson’s religion as that of a “conservative Unitarian….He did not believe in the miracles, nor the divinity of Christ, nor the doctrine of the atonement, but he was a firm believer in Divine Providence, in the efficacy of prayer, in a future state of rewards and punishments, and in the meeting of friends in another world.”
Jefferson also famously said in a letter to Benjamin Rush:
I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every from of tyranny over the mind of man.
In any case, I’m quite anticipating reading the book on Jefferson after I finish my romp through America’s expansionist years.
Otherwise, I have been catching up on my Counter Strike: Source, which I did not get to play at all while on vacation. This is a super high priority, I know, especially for someone who puts so much importance on reading and studying, but since I don’t watch much TV, I’ve got to have an engine by which to channel a little nightly frivolity. Of course, even at that, I am quite competitive and probably take it too seriously. Before going to Boston, for instance, I was quite disappointed with the my so-called “KDR” or kill-death ratio (It was o.95 or something. Quite unacceptable), but happily, the server was reset, and so too were the stats. Now, I’m at about 1.07. While some players’ KDR is above 1.50, anything above 1.0 is respectable in my case. I tend to quit the round or “spectate” if I find myself slipping too far below 1.0 so as not to totally screw up my stats. So much for the mirth.
Site notes: I just updated the software to version WordPress 3.1.3, and for anyone who uses WordPress plugins, you may want to shy away from Statpress. Although I had been using it for quite some time, it apparently caused some overload issues on one of my web host’s servers. My host, IXwebhosting.com, had to disable my database until I detected and fixed the problem. Luckily, the word “statpress” actually appeared in the error message generated by the server, so the culprit was clear.