Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Recent Reviews of "The War Against Spain"

Because "Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain" is the continuation of the story begun in "Theodosia and the Pirates: The Battle Against Britain", I often refer to it simply as "The War Against Spain." In some ways, it is a separate novel, but in others it is just the last third of the story. It is less of a canonical romance, as those are usually about the beginning of a relationship, but it's still a love story. It is  very much grounded in history, even though there are elements that are not based on strict historical fact.

As with every other book, different people react to it in different ways. Today, I will just share a few of the recent critical reactions to the book.

From Eye on Life Magazine, we have Jerilee Wei's review:

Alternative History in Fiction

From the Amazon review section, Pam Keyes' review:

A Gulf Coast Romance with a Twist

From the LeslieBard blog, Leslie Fish's review:

Book Review: "Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain", by Aya Katz

And from her My Stories and Musings, Julia Hanna's chapter by chapter reading guide:

Each person approaches the story from a very different perspective, so it helps to compare and contrast the reviews in order to be able to see the full picture. After reading the book and the reviews, ask yourself which description is more nearly like what you got out of the book. Or, alternatively, if your view is not represented here, write one of your own.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Road to Freedom

Education is the road to freedom. It must be true, because Robespierre said so.

Well, I'm not actually sure that he did say that, but it was in a prominent meme I saw yesterday. Education certainly is the key to reshaping the world. So is propaganda. And whoever controls the teaching of history to today's young is bound to have a hand in tomorrow's outlook.

Here's what I found that Robespierre did actually say:

D’abord je remarque avec peine que jusqu’à 6 ans l’enfant échappe à la vigilance du législateur & que cette portion importante de la vie reste abandonnée aux préjugés subsistants & à la merci des vieilles erreurs. A 6 ans, la loi commence à exercer son influence : mais cette influence n’est que partielle, momentanée ; & par la nature même des choses elle ne peut agir que sur le moindre nombre des individus qui composent la nation.

La plus grave inégalité va s’établir à raison des diverses facultés des parents : & ici les personnes aisées, c’est-à-dire le plus petit nombre, ont tout l’avantage.      
Quiconque peut se passer du travail de son enfant pour le nourrir a la facilité de le tenir aux écoles tous les jours & plusieurs heures chaque jour. Mais quant à la classe indigente, comment fera-telle  ? Cet enfant pauvre, vous lui offrez bien l’instruction ; mais avant, il lui faut du pain. Son père laborieux s’en prive d’un morceau pour le lui donner ; mais il faut que l’enfant gagne l’autre. Son temps est enchaîné au travail, car au travail est enchaînée la subsistance.

Après avoir passé aux champs une journée pénible, voulez-vous que, pour repos, il s’en aille à l’école, éloignée peut-être d’une demi-lieue de son domicile ? Vainement vous établiriez une loi coercitive contre le père ; celui-ci ne saurait se passer journellement du travail d’un enfant qui, à 8, 9 & 10 ans, gagne déjà quelque chose. Un petit nombre d’heures par semaine, voilà tout ce qu’il peut sacrifier. Ainsi, l’établissement des écoles, telles qu’on les propose, ne sera, à proprement parler, bien profitable qu’au petit nombre de citoyens...

Clearly, in order to stamp out all inequality, you need to minimize the role of parents. How can the legislator deal with unequal home environments even before the child goes to school? Sound familiar? Who else says that? To translate just the very last part: "How can we establish a coercive law against the father? How can you deprive him of the work which a child of eight, nine or ten years old already earns from? So the establishment of schools will not, properly speaking, be profitable except for a small number of citizens."

Unless? Unless what?

Art. I. Tous les enfants seront élevés aux dépens de la République, depuis l’âge de cinq ans jusqu’à douze pour les garçons, & depuis cinq ans jusqu’à onze pour les filles.
II. L’éducation nationale sera égale pour tous ; tous recevront même nourriture, mêmes vêtements, même instruction, mêmes soins.
III. L’éducation nationale étant la dette de la République envers tous, tous les enfants ont droit de la recevoir, & les parents ne pourront se soustraire à l’obligation de les faire jouir de ses avantages. [...]

Well, we have such a coercive law in effect now establishing mandatory education, even beyond the ages that Robespierre envisioned. And I think we all know how parents are deprived of the right to decide whether their children work for their keep or go to school. Now the question is: what shall we teach in our schools?

What if you started teaching American history with Lincoln? And what if you taught, not what Lincoln did as a president, but instead began the whole story on the eve of his assassination? And suppose you focused on the details of everything that happened that day, but never explained any of the context?

This is education today in America. Students learn a lot of things, but they are not allowed to see the big picture.  And then later we get de-contextualized quotations from the likes of Robespierre, and it's okay, as long as you don't label anyone for what they did or what they believed in or what cause they espoused or served.

I made a new meme today.

I think this would make an excellent essay topic for a high school history class. Maybe someone should offer a prize for the best answer. But I don't think that could happen in the public schools. How would the public profit from such an endeavor? What would Robespierre think about that?

Friday, September 26, 2014

Honor and Love

Today, on my Facebook feed, I saw a post that really annoyed me.


The writer is complaining that strange men are sexually harassing his wife and daughters, and this makes him angry. He thinks it is because men objectify women, He thinks they should be educated not to objectify women, and then everything will be okay. Then, for some reason he starts talking about human trafficking and selling little girls into slavery. He thinks this, too, will stop as soon as men stop objectifying women. His plan of action is to do nothing except write about it, so that people will be educated into not objectifying women.

A young Chinese woman after being liberated by the Allies from serving as a "comfort woman" for the Japanese

Please, understand, I am against rape. I am against child molestation. I also think strangers should treat each other with courtesy and that unpermitted, offensive sexual touching is the crime of battery. It's battery when a man you don't know in a dark alley does it, and it's battery when a TSA agent  (of either sex) does it to a traveler (of either sex) at the airport. It's battery because it is an unpermitted touching. And the only thing that would make it not battery is consent.

But what on earth has that got to do with men regarding women as sex objects? How did this man come by his six daughters if he never regarded his wife as a sex object? Were they all conceived by artificial insemination? Does he hope that none of them ever meet a man who sees them as a sex object and proceeds to court them until they consent to be that sex object for him? What sort of sterile world does he want to live in?

If he wants his wife and daughters to be treated with courtesy and respect as they make their way through life he should:

1) Protect them when they are together. Stand up for them if he feels their honor is being challenged.

2) Stand up for other men's wives and daughters if he sees them being harassed, so that other men will also do the same for his wife and daughters when he is not there to stand up for them.

3) Teach his wife and daughters self defense techniques and arm them, so they can stand up for themselves and each other and for all other people, men or women, who are being attacked.

4) Vote against any laws that disarm citizens, and stand up for any stranger who needs his help when attacked not only by a civilian, but also by a police officer or Federal Agent or a TSA officer.

And here's what he -- and all of us -- can do about the trafficking of children as sex slaves:

1) Don't sell your children into slavery.
2) Don't buy slaves, unless you plan to set them free.
3) Respect other people's rights to consent to arrangements they find acceptable.
4) Recognize the difference between consensual relations and rape and act to defend the innocent whenever you see rape or battery.

 Nobody saved anyone from rape by writing a diatribe against rape. Never in the history of mankind has that worked. But many men, such as Jean Laffite, for instance, did prevent rape and molestation by flogging and hanging any man under them who committed those crimes.

There is nothing more shameful than a man who stands by and does nothing when a woman's honor is at stake. This is one way that women judge men. In both Theodosia and the Pirates books, there are examples of exactly how this works.

A woman can never respect a man who will not fight for her honor. She will fight for his, too, to the extent that she can. And as long as he is honorable and brave, most women will gladly be a sex object at the end of the day for the man they have chosen as their own.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Oath of Loyalty and National Identity

At one point, Jean Laffite required an oath of loyalty of all his privateers operating out of Galveston. Why was that necessary? Did he think an oath would make them more loyal? Or did it have more to do with the shifting laws concerning privateering?

After the War of 1812 the American admiralty courts began regarding any privateering vessel manned by multinational crews to be a pirate ship. Multinational crews on ships are a very common thing. Because ships travel from one destination to another, none of the people on a ship will typically remain in the territorial waters of their own country all of the time. This is true of passenger vessels, ships that transport goods, and to some extent even of fishing vessels. That's just the nature of the work. Because of this, crews can be recruited in many different locations and can return to their home port periodically to be with their families. The fact that people belonging to different nations work together on the same ship is not a good indication that it is engaged in piracy.

However, to understand the issue of  multinational versus single nation crews, we need to better acquaint ourselves with the difference between piracy and privateering as generally understood at the time:

   Broadly defined, piracy was the unlawful taking of one vessel by another one. It was simple highway robbery on the seas. In time of war, however, the merchant trade of each combatant became the legitimate prey not only of its' opponents warships, but also of private armed vessels, or privateers. In order to finance its war efforts while damaging the economy of its enemies, a government issued letters of marque and reprisal to qualified vessels. The owners -- and often they were whole syndicates of investors -- armed, equipped, and crewed their ships at their own expense, and posted a hefty cash bond as guarantee that they would observe the rules of warfare and respect civilian life. The vessels were supposed to be commissioned in the home port of the commission-granting country. Their crews were supposed to be made up of a majority of men native to that country. They were to bring their prizes into the port of the commissioning country or a friendly country, where a court of admiralty would examine papers and other evidence to decide whether the prize was eligible for capture and lawfully taken. If the court awarded possession of the prize to its captors, the prize ship and its cargo were sold and the proceeds shared between the crew, the investors and the government whose flag the privateer flew. (Davis, The Pirates Laffite, pp. 28-29)
This is how Jean Laffite spelled Carthagena in his letter to Madison
What would it mean that a crew consisted of a "majority of men native" to a particular country?  This question is trickier than one would suppose, especially with new countries, such as Cartagena and the United States, the majority of whose adult citizens at the time were all born as the subjects of a European country (Britain or Spain) long before the new country came into being. Let us remember that in 1812, the United States was only 36 years old, and anyone below that age could not possibly have been born an American citizen. The Republic of Cartagena, whose independence was won in 1811, was only a year old at the time. Jean Laffite had a letter of marque from Cartagena, and he was not a native of that country, nor had he ever lived there when he accepted that commission.

The flag of Cartagena

The fact of the matter is that multinational crews typically worked on most private vessels, and that countries at war with each other do not always even recognize each others'  rights to grant citizenship. Britain was kidnapping and "impressing" American sailors all the time before war was declared, on the theory that "once a British subject, always a British subject."

How did you become a citizen of a country that only just now had come into being? One way was to have been born there. Another was naturalization. Some countries, like Switzerland, make it next to impossible for someone not born there to become a citizen. Others, like the United States, make people jump through a series of hoops, involving a combination of legal residence, affidavits by sponsoring citizens, a test on civics that has to be passed and ultimately an oath of loyalty. Other countries, such as Columbia during the period when Jean Laffite later came to live there (the 1820s), make it much easier to become a citizen. You merely have to show up and evince your willingness to serve.

How much should you have to give up in order to become a citizen? Can you still have other loyalties? Or should you have to tear from your heart all love and tenderness for your country of origin? Should you have to give up your language, your religion, your customs and your traditions? Theodore Roosevelt seemed to think so.

"In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man's becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American...There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag, which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile...We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language...and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people." Theodore Roosevelt, 1919.
When America was first founded, everyone was a new American, and people from other countries besides England, such as DuPont de Nemours, were welcomed with open arms. In the national archives, there is a letter from DuPont de Nemours in French to President Madison thanking him  for a Navy commission granted his grandson. President Madison was happy to help DuPont, and he did not lecture him about how maybe he should learn English first. Ironically, that letter is right next to the letter by Jean Laffite asking to be reimbursed for his stolen ships. Laffite's letter was in English, but it did contain a lot of misspellings. Laffite was trying to fit in, and DuPont was not.  Clearly something else was at play here when Laffite was rebuffed, but DuPont was rewarded than Theodore Roosevelt's linguistic jingoism. Nobody thought at the time that you had to speak English exclusively in order to be a good American.

Letter from Dupont to Madison

But as things progressed, fear of being overwhelmed by a majority of non-British immigrants began to upset many powerful people, and prejudice against others who spoke different languages at home or who belonged to a different religion became acceptable. It was not unusual for Catholics to be held in suspicion, because of their loyalty to the Pope, which was thought to conflict with their citizenship, or for Jews to have their religion cited as a reason why they could not serve in diplomatic positions abroad. The French speaking population of Louisiana was forced to stop speaking French by punishment for same in the public schools and many native American tribes suffered the same.

As this issue of nationality versus citizenship began to hold a more prominent place in the American imagination, Jean Laffite was faced with a quandary in his rulership over Galveston. How could he show that the crews of his vessels were not pirates, despite the fact that the sailors came from different races or nations and spoke different languages and believed in different creeds? The answer was a simple legalistic one: make them all swear loyalty to Jean Laffite's country and its flag.

Was Jean Laffite a tyrant when he did this? Not at all. He was an extremely tolerant man. He had no desire to change the people who worked for him into carbon copies of himself. He thought it was fine for them to speak different languages and worship different gods, as long as they served him well. But the legalistic expedient of the loyalty oath was a way to present a united front to the American legal system, which wanted to make sure everybody belonged to the same nation when they served together.

Which attitude was more truly American in spirit, Laffite's openness or the progressively more stifling stance of the American legal system?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Price of Living in a House

Should everybody live in a house? Many people believe that this is a basic human right. Never mind that not all humans do live in houses. Some live in tents. Some live in igloos. Some are nomads. Some live in their vehicles or on board their ships. There are so many different ways of living, and who is to say that only one way is right?

Owning real estate is expensive, because it is often a target for robbery or taxation. It is easy to lay siege to someone holed up in a house, and without a standing army to protect the house from those intent on plunder, one might not stand a chance.  Are you willing to pay for that army? Or would you rather just move along? Miss just one payment of your property taxes and your title is gone!

"You can't sail away in a house," Jean Laffite says in Theodosia and the Pirates. Laffite spent most of his early adult life living on board a ship. But he was not unaware that countries such as Britain had vagrancy laws that made it illegal not to live in a house. At one time he and Pierre were arrested and thrown into prison while in England, on charges of vagabondage. Their crime? When questioned by police where they were living, they could not provide an address. They were living on board ship.

Aaron Burr, once the owner of the stately mansion, Richmond Hill, fell on hard times and found himself as a homeless exile in Europe. He often slept in brothels, not for the services offered, but because he needed a place to take shelter. Even when he returned to the United States, he was often in dire straits, and it became standard procedure for him to pawn his watch when in a financial pinch.

Aaron Burr's Watch
No matter how high our current station in life, and how much real estate we may own, it makes sense to remember that owning a house -- or even just renting one  -- is a burden that not everyone can support. Instead of making it a mandatory "human right", we should take into account that it's entirely optional, and there are many other ways of living to choose from.

It's also good to remember that real estate ownership, while sometimes difficult to come by, is open to all, if they can afford it. It is not always the case that powerful, important or famous people own real estate, and that members of minorities who are less powerful do not. At a time when Aaron Burr was destitute and Jean Laffite lived mostly on board ships, Marie Villard, who was a free black woman and the mother of many of Pierre Laffite's children, owned a house on Bourbon Street in New Orleans,

How much did Marie Villard's house cost? In 1819, at a time when the common free laborer was lucky to make a dollar a day, its market value was $9,000.00. This was before VA loans or Fanny Mae, and houses were purchased in cash, or, at best,  in four easy installments, consisting mostly of the principal, with very little interest.

Should a house to live in be a "human right"? I don't think so. Should people be thrown into prison if they don't have a fixed abode? No. Should you have to prove the address where you reside in order to be able to cash a check or take a job? I don't think so. I think you should be able to live any way you choose, provided you are not hurting anyone else.

Sometimes powerful men find themselves homeless, while unassuming single mothers own real estate. This can happen in a relatively free market, where the government does not interfere, and the right to the pursuit of happiness is guaranteed, but not the right to free housing at anyone else's expense.

Friday, September 19, 2014

How Do Pirates Talk?

I find this whole talk-like-a-pirate thing very annoying. First of all, on International Talk Like a  Pirate Day, are we to assume that all pirates speak English? That they roll their "r"s and speak like Long John Silver? And secondly, what does a pirate actually do? Why would people even want to talk like pirates?

What is it about Pirates? It's a mystery to me why so many people like pirates in the particular shallow and unrealistic manner in which they have come to imagine them. And yet I feel I ought not to ignore this opportunity to acquaint people with Jean Laffite, as personified in my two Theodosia and the Pirates novels.

Jean Laffite by Lanie Frick
as seen on the cover of Theodosia and the Pirates

Jean Laffite was not a pirate.  But how he talked depended very much on who it was he was speaking to. To Spaniards, he spoke in Spanish. To Frenchmen, he spoke in French. To African slaves, he spoke in a creole that they understood. He was able to shift to the language of his interlocutor, no matter what language that was,

Besides that, Laffite's speech was characterized with proper diction and politeness. We don't have any samples of his spontaneous spoken speech, but I think that the samples of his writing that we do have would give you some idea of what sort of English he used.

Maybe we should have a talk-like-a-privateer day, in which we all practice speaking as politely as possible to each other. Instead of saying "pass the salt" we would say "would you have the kindness of doing me the honor of passing the salt?"

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Ode to Privateers

Today on Historia Obscura, we have the first poem about the Battle of New Orleans.

The First Battle of New Orleans poem

Notably absent is any mention of Jean Laffite. To correct this omission, I have written a different poem about the same topic.

Sketch of Jean Laffite by Lanie Frick

Ode to Privateers

by Aya Katz

There are men who die for their nation,
    Who unselfishly give up their lives
There are men who live for their station,
    Who prevail without sacrifice.

There are women who raise up their children,
      And scrub floors and clean bottoms and nurse,
At the end of the day they want payment
      In undying love and remorse.

But the love that is true does not barter
Or require one to suffer to pay
For the care and affection a baby
Ought always to have anyway.

Now Britain was one kind of mother
Who demanded a fee for her love,
And she forced former children to serve her,
And she never accepted rebuff.

She kidnapped, indentured those sailors,
     Who had never agreed they should serve
And she thought she could live off the payments
     That others were making to her.

But Americans swore they were freemen,
      And only would work for their gain
And they never consented to fiefdom
     To serve under England or Spain.

Now Madison turned to the Congress
     And he asked that a war be declared
Against Britain, that unruly mother,
     Who forced sailors under her care.

But the coffers of war they were empty,
     And the army and navy were poor
And American patriot  menfolk
    Were not ready to set out to war.

They had sworn that they never would live for
    Another, and only alone for their gain,
And who wants to die for the right to
     Avoid paying taxes again? 

If not for the brave privateers who
Had always made war for their gain,
Who would set aside natural fear for
The right to know freedom again?

When the British approached Jean Laffite and
Required that he help them regain
Their colonial holdings, discreetly
  He sent word to Americans then.

He said:  "Though you're holding my brother,
   "In that dirty old Cabildo jail,"
"I will never agree to serve Britain,
    "And I  do want your side to prevail."

But Patterson, hearing the news that
    The British were near Mobile Point,
Instead of defending Ft. Bowyer,
    Came and ransacked closer to home.

He took all the ships that Laffite had,
   The stores were to serve as his spoils,
And he feasted on chocolate and Seegars
    And he cared not the British to foil.

So it came that when Jackson came marching
     His ragtag troops for their stint,
They were shoeless and all out of powder,
    And awfully short on the flint. 

And up spoke Laffite: "Let me help you,
      "I have men, and cannons and flint,
"I have barrels and barrels of powder,
      "We will fight for you, just let us in! "

There are men who fight for their nation,
     Because in fighting they gain,
And together they vanquished the British,
    Who were crushed so that few did remain.

And the British, they begged to be let go,
    And America won on that day,
And not because taxes or duties
   Or regular armies held sway.

For the men who have chosen no thralldom,
     And who fight every day for their bread,
Are the ones who are ready when called on,
     Who can shoot at the foe until dead.

There are men who will fight but are fearful,
     And who miss because of that fear,
But the reason we all are still here is
    Because there were once privateers.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Professionals and Government Men in the Service of War

In the end, a peace treaty was signed, and all was right with the world, and the British and the Americans remembered that they were brothers. And they proceeded to eliminate the competition to their hegemony, and they harried privateers without let until there were no privateers left either side of the Atlantic. And there were taxes laid, and there were duties levied, and the Americans paid the British the debt they owed to Napoleon for the Louisiana Purchase. And there followed the Panic of 1819.

But once upon a time,  the British and the Americans were at war, and they used their professional Navy men to fight each other, and their professional Navy men often made mistakes that might easily have cost either side the war. But still they were more concerned with law and order than with winning. 

The British enlisted the aid of Jean Laffite, but he sent word to the Americans that the British planned to attack Ft. Bowyer, and the Americans, hearing this, sent Commodore Patterson to destroy Jean Laffite and his fleet of light ships that sailed in shallow waters.

And the Patterson expedition took the light vessels that the privateers had and they did not use them in battle, but only kept them from being used in service of their own cause. And even though Patterson knew there would be an attack on Ft. Bowyer, he did nothing to help the Americans at that fort.

But luckily for the Americans, the British had incompetent officers who did not know how to attack a fort in shallow waters, and Captain Percy, after heavy loss of life,  ended up having to blow up his own ship and return to Pensacola, beaten.

But still the Americans were not ready, and when Andrew Jackson set out to New Orleans, he did not even have the gunpowder and the flints that would be necessary to beat the British,  And all the while he was denouncing Jean Laffite and his men as banditti, he eventually realized that he needed their help. 

So the banditti were temporarily pardoned and enlisted and Jean Laffite supplied the gunpowder and the flint that won the Battle of New Orleans. And after the peace was signed, and after the Martial Law was lifted, and after life went back to normal. the ships that were pilfered were not returned, the gunpowder and flints were not paid for, and eventually, Jean Laffite and other privateers were run out of town, and outlawed and persecuted, until they were heard from no more.

That is the story of that war, in which neither side really won, and in which both sides agreed they disliked privateers more than they disliked each other. And it was decided we needed a stronger army and a stronger Navy, all at taxpayer expense. And the entire point of the American Revolution was forgotten.

It happened two hundred years ago, more or less. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Changing Public Perception of Privateers

Have you noticed that certain occupations, professions and trades, which used to be perfectly respectable, seem to come under fire at a particular juncture in time, and all of a sudden people find themselves under attack and on the defensive for doing something that had been perfectly fine just a short time earlier?

The moral indignation that goes with these attacks can be the most puzzling thing of all to people whose practices suddenly come under fire. New words are used as epithets or old words are conjured up to blacken their name which had never applied before.

Take the term "puppy mill". Recently it has been used to tar and feather anyone in the dog breeding business. Do you sell puppies for a living? Do you tear them away from their mother's bosom and ship them off to strangers? You must be a very bad person. Puppies, for God's sake! Why can't you find something decent to do for a living, like sell health insurance or lottery tickets, instead?

And the person thus attacked doesn't even understand what happened. Yesterday, this was a good and decent way to make a living, and all of the sudden the only right way to get a new dog is from a shelter, where they have been "rescued", And sometimes these "rescued" animals are taken by force from their owners.

I am not myself a dog breeder, nor have I ever been, nor do I plan to become one, but I know a few, and I see how their life has been made harder by the changing fashion concerning the right and the wrong of dog breeding.

The same thing happened to Jean Laffite. He was a respectable privateer, and they branded him as a pirate. But it was not just to him that it happened. It happened to many others. One day it was a respectable profession, a decent way to make a living, and then, almost overnight, it wasn't anymore.

How did that happen and why? That is going to be the topic of my talk in Galveston this October.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Daughters of El Cid: The Importance of Feeling Important

Romantic fiction, as opposed to naturalist fiction, is intended to make the reader feel important, while identifying with important people in a story. Naturalist fiction tends to do the opposite, making the reader feel unimportant, while identifying with insignificant characters in a story.

However, it is not always simply a matter of identifying with kings and princesses, as in a fairy tale or a Disney movie. Sometimes the important person in a piece of romantic writing is a child or a slave or a pauper, who is seemingly powerless, but still manages to make a big difference not only for himself, but also for others in the story. Sometimes in a naturalist piece of fiction, a character can be wealthy or powerful, but rendered ineffectual by anxiety or fear or the psychological inability to act.

I have always enjoyed stories about people who, no matter their social position, are able to make a real difference in the big world that surrounds them. But I have read literary theory to the effect that what makes naturalist fiction more appropriate for today's readers is that they are powerless to make a difference in the big world, so they must focus on their small lives instead. As if the average person in the 19th century, who read romantic fiction, somehow had more of a say in the big, wide world.

And then, paradoxically, we see memes that say: "People died to give you the right to vote. People shed blood to give you a voice. Now go out and vote. It is the only way for you to make a difference."

Really? People died to make sure that we can answer a multiple choice question? Yes or No. True or False. Red or Blue. Is there any true self-expression in that? How can you make a difference by merely flipping a switch or filling in a line or blacking out a circle? Isn't it obvious that the people who shed the blood to let us vote were making a difference, while our actual vote makes no difference at all?

The people who frame those multiple choice questions have all the power. What it is that we are voting about is more important than what we vote. But we are effectively cut off from any representation there, where it counts, in the secret, smoke filled rooms where all the real decisions are made. (Or are those rooms smoke-free these days? I have no idea.)

Statue of El Cid
(from the wikipedia)

Theodosia and the Pirates, both parts, is a fairy tale set in a time when it still was possible for a person of humble origins, like Jean Laffite,  to make a big difference. In one sense, these are stories about fairy princesses: both Theodosia Burr and Denise Laffite are figurative daughters of  El Cid, a legendary savior of his country, who was forced to go into exile and was branded a traitor, due to political machinations. El Cid straddled party lines, represented both Christians and Moslems, and ruled over a pluralistic state for the benefit of all. And without a single ballot having to be cast!


(Things that will help you to think about what the chapters of the book mean)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Grandmother Behind the Man

Today is National Grandparents' Day. Of course, most people have grandparents, and family history, and ways in which the ancestral story shapes their development. But not everybody gets to meet every one of his grandparents. Theodosia, for instance, met neither of her paternal grandparents, because they were dead by the time that her father was two.

Aaron Burr, Sr. was the second president of Princeton University, back when it was not even called Princeton.  Burr was a theologian knowledgeable in the classics. It was his erudition, rather than his piety, that somehow was passed down to Theodosia, through her father,

Theodosia's grandmother, Esther Edwards Burr, left behind a Journal, the better for us to know her.

These were absent grandparents who still left quite a mark on the granddaughter who never got to meet them. But for Jean Laffite, who lost his mother as an infant, his grandmother was not a forgotten memory or a series of letters on a page. His mother having died shortly after he was born, Zora Nadrimal, Jean Laffite's grandmother, served him in place of a mother. It was she who taught him to read and to write (in Spanish) and who oversaw all his first lessons. She also instilled in him the desire to avenge the death of his grandfather at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition.

Jean Laffite inscribed one of his family bibles with the words: "I owe all my ingenuity to the great intuition of my grandmother..." They say that behind every great man is a woman. But it's not often that this woman turns out to be his grandmother!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Economics of Privateering and of Piracy

Theodosia and the Pirates

The title Theodosia and the Pirates is meant facetiously. Jean Laffite and his close associates were not pirates. The phrase was used to conjure up all those salacious stories of what may have happened to Theodosia Burr Alston once she and the Patriot disappeared from the pages of history. But I had her meet up with Jean Laffite, instead, and rather than being captured, she was rescued. Only the most prudish of readers would regard what happened to her in the pages of my novels as a fate worse than death.

But beyond the issue of whether Theodosia did anything wrong in associating with Jean Laffite comes the more intellectually challenging issue of determining whether Jean Laffite did anything wrong by plying his trade as a privateer. Was he, as so many eminent historians still allege, merely  a pirate?

This very much turns on the meaning of the term pirate. Is a pirate just a "sea robber" (שודד ים) as I was brought up to believe? Or is there more to piracy than this? If you have a special license to rob people at sea, does this absolve you from the accusation of being a pirate?Is a letter of marque enough? And where does earning a living come into all this? Are you a pirate only if you make money off robbing people at sea? If you do it for a higher cause, does it mean you are not a pirate?

Take the fictional pirate, Ragnar Danneskjöld, from Ayn Rand's  Atlas Shrugged. Seen as a patriotic pirate, he robs government vessels and repays 100% of the money taken from citizens by the government back to those whose money it was. I remember that when I first discussed this with my father, he laughed and said: "That's not a pirate! It's an altruist! He doesn't get paid for his work." In order to make his work pay, Ragnar Danneskjöld would have had to have taken a cut of the taxpayers' money that he was returning.

And therein lies the problem: you cannot get justice without paying for it, one way or another. You can't win a lawsuit without paying the court costs and the attorney fees. You can't win a war, without paying for the war. And once you pay for it, it does not feel entirely like justice. Everyone wants freedom to be free of charge. But it can't be. There's a price. There is always a price.

Jean Laffite ran a viable business. He had vessels he kept up and crews who were given a share in the profits. He sold goods on the open market. He had a family to support. When his business was manufacturing gunpowder, he got paid for the finished product over and above the price of the raw ingredients. When his business was privateering, he ran it for a profit, too. He may have charged below market for the goods he sold, but it was still more money than it cost him to get it from those he  plundered. He made enough to support his crews, his employees, his partners and his family. He was a better businessman than most capitalists. 

Is it bad that Jean Laffite made a profit? Should he have merely donated his services free of charge? In my opinion, anything that appears to be "free" usually carries hidden fees. When war is not financed privately, it is waged at the expense of the public and it ends up costing much more.

Who should pay for every lawsuit? The losing side should be saddled with attorney fees and court costs. That way, they will have lost something real, not simply what was not rightfully theirs in the first place. Who should pay for every war? The loser. That and only that will keep the peace from being broken again hastily. 

When privateers are used in battle against the enemy, they naturally cause the other side to bear the greater financial burden of the war. No taxation against one's own people is necessary. Instead, the people get to buy plundered goods at below cost, helping to finance the privateer's establishment. It's a win-win situation. 

Privateers are law abiding businessmen who only plunder the enemy. There is a price for every war. Privateering makes sure that it's the enemy that pays that price. And what if a war is unwinnable? Then there is no profit in starting it in the first place. And no privateer will go to war under such conditions. This is another reason privateering helps to put limits on war.

Why did I call it Theodosia and the Pirates ? Because throughout the long story, we get to see through Theodosia's eyes as the true meaning of piracy is understood. We witness the slow evolving process as  Theodosia discovers for herself that Jean Laffite is no pirate at all, but the greatest patriot she has ever met, greater even than her own father.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Patriotic Dissent

Can you be critical of the actions of your government without being seen as unpatriotic? Can you be reverent of the founding documents of your country, but disparaging of the founders, some of whom helped to draft those documents? Can you love America while criticizing important Americans? Or even Americans in general?

 I once heard someone say that she really admired the Quran, but she hated Moslems. It sounded so funny to me at the time. I chided her on this, asking how that was possible, and she said that Moslems universally misinterpret their holy book. I have since heard someone say the same thing about the Bible and Christians.

Any really broad use of a term invites misunderstanding, which is why I changed the blurb of Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain from what it used to be to this:

What was the blurb like before? It was more or less the words to the War Against Spain book trailer:

When understood in context, these words are very patriotic and show reverence to America's ideals, as put forth in the constitution. But when read out of context, they can be seen as unpatriotic.

That is actually what Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain is all about. How can you remain loyal to the ideals of your country when your countrymen violate them with impunity? Do you have to go underground with your patriotism?  If you can't practice freedom openly, do you have to furtively support those ideals? Is your country the land, the people, the government or the ideals?

It is young Jules who expresses some of these questions toward the end of the book.

We don't have to put anyone's head on a plate to set the record straight. Nor is it unpatriotic to point out when any governmental action or citizen's attitude is in conflict with the founding documents.

But since people who have not read the book may not know this is what it is about, it is best to be a bit more expository in the descriptive blurb. They can wait until after they have read the book to ponder what it would mean to be "more American than the Americans."