Monday, December 28, 2015

What if There is No Collapse?

When things get really bad, some people worry about an imminent collapse of civilization. Other people become hopeful that the collapse will be upon them soon, freeing them from their captivity and servitude. When I was a teenager in the SF community, I ran into some of these people, who called themselves Survivalists. Today, the same sorts of people are called "Preppers", I am not sure why the name of a thing has to change every few decades, although I suspect that the idea falls into disrepute, and then it is revived under a new word that does not bear the stigma.

I have a lot of sympathy for the motives of the Survivalists and the Preppers, and the Shruggers, in that all of them are hoping to get the yoke of the Federal government off their backs and to rebuild anew under circumstances that are at once more difficult, but at the same time offer much more hope for the future. If only we could get out from under the current mess, scrap the present non-functional system, and start from scratch! Unfortunately, I don't think that's going to happen. Things don't tend to collapse. No matter how bad it gets, it could always be worse.

Here is a blog post by Sarah A. Hoyt that explains the widespread historical evidence that civilization does not tend to collapse, even under extreme pressure:

In Our Lady of Kaifeng: Courtyard of the Happy Way, we see an example of how collapse does not happen in a small, microcosmic illustration. You would think, for instance, that when the Japanese lost World War II, their internment camps in China would just fall apart and the inmates would wander away into freedom. This would seem to be a very reasonable model of collapse.

However, that's not what happened. What happened was this: the American government sent seven men in parachutes to take over the camp. The Japanese Commandant surrendered to the head of this party, and then the Japanese continued to run the internment camp on behalf of the American government, until an Army unit could take over. And the Army unit set up an entire indoctrination program to help the internees reenter American or Allied society, before eventually shipping them home. Meanwhile, the Communists were shelling outside the camp, because as far as they were concerned, the war was not over. It would not be over till they won complete control over China.

At no time did the internment camp just collapse. At no point did anarchy reign at the Courtyard of the Happy Way. At no point were the bad policies of either the government of Japan or the government of the United States the cause of a loss of order in the world of the internees. There was always somebody in charge! The prisoners took orders till the very end. We can argue about which jailer was more humane, but at no point was there freedom in that camp.

I don't write science fiction to illustrate these points. Why should I, when actual historical facts bear me out? Is there anything stranger than the truth?

Sunday, December 27, 2015


Lately, there has been a lot of misuse of the term "forgiveness." People say things like "I am forgiving for my own sake, so that I can know peace. But I want nothing to do with the person I forgive, and no benefit need come to the wrongdoer from my forgiveness."

While it is true that a catharsis can occur when we forgive, forgiveness is not something we can do without focusing on the other person. By its very nature, forgiveness cannot be all about us. It has to involve our true feelings for and about another.

Just as revenge is different from karma, forgiveness, the most extreme  alternative to revenge, is different from writing someone off and shunning them. Yet today, people conflate all the non-revenge reactions together, as if to fail to take revenge is the same as forgiveness.

All of these are legitimate reactions to being wronged:

  • Revenge
  • Retribution
  • Payment and release
  • A lawsuit
  • Shunning
  • The Cold Shoulder
  • The Silent Treatment
  • Forgiveness

There are degrees of anger that we feel for a wrong committed against us. There are degrees of reaction that are possible. All of these are acceptable. Just because you have been wronged, that does not mean you must seek revenge. Just because you have been wronged, that does not mean you must forgive. 

While both revenge and forgiveness are the most extreme reactions possible -- and each of them offers a greater emotional catharsis and release than the less extreme possibilities in the middle -- they are certainly not the only choices available, 

Most of the time we will choose neither revenge nor forgiveness for serious wrongs committed against us. Revenge can be too costly. We might be too entangled with a person in  our business or family life to be able to take full retribution, a lawsuit drags on forever, but still we cannot forgive. So most times, we just have to let it go. We move on. We stop feeling angry, we lose the need to act on the feeling, but still we do not forgive. Letting it go does not mean forgiveness. And we are fooling no one if we call it that.

In the video embedded below, I discuss what forgiveness is and why people try to fake it. 

Related Posts

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Nature of Happiness

In our current culture, we have two main views on happiness, which are diametrically opposed;

1. You must stay in the present moment, forgetting all about the past and the future, in order to enjoy true happiness. A representative article belonging to this school can be found here, in a review of  a book by Alan Watts:

2. A meaningful life, one based on working in the present to secure future rewards, not necessarily for oneself, but for others or for abstract ideals such as knowledge, love or civilization, is more sustaining than the momentary happiness that comes from focusing on the present.

Both views are widely accepted, so much so that I see the same people posting memes sometimes in favor of the one view and sometimes in favor of the other, seemingly unaware that they contradict each other. And for those of them who really live in the present moment, with no concern for consistency, maybe it really does work that way!

As a believer in the "pursuit of happiness" rather than its immediate possession, I may seem to fall into the second school, that of Victor Frankl, the holocaust survivor, but I really don't buy into his embracing suffering for its own sake. For instance, if you believe in the future, why would you sacrifice your young pregnant wife to your elderly parents? Even without the holocaust, the parents eventually would have died. Living for the future means saving the young, so they can transmit your  culture and your genes on into a possibly limitless future.  None of my grandparents stayed behind to take care of their parents. All of them made sure that their children survived, which is why I and my  daughter even exist. This to me seems to be the productive way of living for the future.

But on the other hand, it is very difficult to simply give way to sensual pleasure -- eating, procreation, taking care of young -- without thinking what those things mean for the future. The emptiness of drug induced pleasure comes precisely from the fact that this natural signal that one is on the right path to a sustainable future has been hijacked out of its biological context. A drug high, unlike a natural high, is lulling one into a sense of happiness in the present moment without any positive implications for the future.

In nature, every sensual pleasure is a stimulus created to guide the living being onto a productive path.

Often religious highs are made to mimic drug highs and to create in the mind an elation that is at variance with natural stimulus. So a person meditating or praying can cause the depression and pain of being in a hopeless situation in the present to dissipate and be replaced by a pleasure that comes not so much from anticipating a future reward, but from experiencing that reward in the present moment. That is the true danger of religion as an opiate for the masses -- not the promise of reward after death, but the granting of a reward now that prevents people from taking positive action to change the present.

In Our Lady of Kaifeng: Courtyard of the Happy Way the Camp Commandant wanted everyone in the camp to be happy, so that they could not only survive their internment but also thrive under his direction. In order to make this dream of his come true, he gave people flower seeds and encouraged them to put on plays and concerts, to sweeten their captivity.

Marah Fallowfield, on the other hand, did not want everyone to be lulled into a present happiness. She wanted them to fully experience their momentary suffering, so that they would rise up and rebel. She found happiness from being truly present to the evils of the moment, while plotting a brighter future.

Sometimes we are deluded when we plan for a future that never comes. Sometimes we are deluded by momentary pleasure that is ultimately meaningless. But actual happiness does not come from pretty flowers or pleasant odors or soft caresses. It comes from a past, present and future that are integrated together as a whole. Happiness does not require us to  bypass death.  Death is inevitable. Happiness  means making sure that what we value outlives us, whether that is our children, our handiwork or our ideas.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Trailer for Our Lady of Kaifeng: Courtyard of the Happy Way

I recently finished writing Our Lady of Kaifeng: Courtyard of the Happy Way. It is now undergoing the usual editing process, and it will not be available for sale until next year.

The issues in this novel are intertwined between personal and global concerns. But one question that we try to resolve is: what makes someplace a concentration camp? Is it it just that you're not allowed to leave? What other characteristics do concentration camps tend to have?

The following trailer deals with this question.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Pearl Harbor Day

Yesterday, I finished the manuscript for the second half of Our Lady of Kaifeng. And today marks the 74th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

There are many things that people don't agree about concerning World War II. But you would think that a seemingly objective fact, like when Pearl Harbor happened, would be incontrovertible. For someone like Marah, talking to her mother after the war, however, even the date was a point of disagreement.

Everything depends on your point of view. Even the date when something happened. Maybe if more people were able to shift their perspective, then we would have a lot fewer disagreements.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Authenticating the Journal of Jean Laffite

Today, on Historia Obscura, there is a groundbeaking new article about the authenticity of the Journal of Jean Laffite.

In this article, the Gros portrait which was part of the Laffite collection is authenticated as being by the famous Napoleonic artist, Antoine-Jean Gros. What this means, among other things, is that John A. Laffite, whatever his demerits, could not have forged that painting.

Of course he could not have forged the Journal, either.

For one thing, John A. Laffite did not speak French. For another, the particular dialect of French used would be unavailable even to a literate American forger, as it was a creole with a peculiar mixture of Spanish and Haitian influences. But there are other ways we can tell that the document is not a forgery.

The Journal of Jean Laffite  surfaced in 1948, when a man calling himself John Andrechyne Laflin presented it to the Missouri Historical Society. At first it was believed to be genuine, but later doubts began to surface. Laflin's own past was shady, he was accused of being a forger, and people began to doubt that this was the true journal of the famous privateer whose actions in the Battle of New Orleans turned the tide in the War of 1812.

An examination of the paper and ink confirmed that they were the 19th century and belonged to the same time period which it purported to have come from. The journal is not a day by day diary. It is more like the reminiscing of an older man about his past life. It is written in French and contains many newspaper clippings, rather like a scrapbook.

You would think, however, that an examination of the handwriting, and especially the signature of Jean Laffite, might be dispositive of the issue. If the manuscript was genuine, then surely the signature would match the signature in other documents from reputable sources.

As it happens, the national archives contain a letter written by Jean Laffite to President James Madison. The signature on that letter looks like this:

I have copied this signature from the letter written by Jean Laffite to James Madison which is found in the Library of Congress in the James Madison Collection. (It is not protected by copyright).

We can take a very good looks at this signature and get some idea if the signature in the Journal of Jean Laffite is the same or different.

I have a copy of the journal which was sent to me from the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Centter. It, too, is not protected by copyright, and the librarian was happy to make me this copy. The signature in the Journal of Jean Laffite looks like this:

The signatures do look quite different. You would think this would be dispositive of the issue. The letter to President Madison is genuine and is kept by the government. The journal must be a hoax.

But when I consulted with a genuine Jean Laffite researcher, here is what I found out: the experts all agree that the signature in the letter by Jean Laffite is not in the privateer's hand, whereas the signature in the Journal is very much the privateer's signature on his ship's manifest.

Picture provided by Pam Keyes

Now what do you make of that?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

When the Smugglers Are the Government

Smuggling happens whenever the government decides that  something -- and it really does matter what that something is -- is "not allowed" to the people. What invariably happens is that someone -- and it really doesn't matter who that someone is -- will procure that forbidden something at great personal risk, even braving death, so that the people can have that something they crave.

At around the the time of the War of 1812, the something was manufactured goods from abroad and illegal slaves. That someone was Jean Laffite, together with his Baratarian associates. Later they moved to Galveston, and kept doing the same. When they were eventually run off, do you imagine the smuggling stopped? No, it continued, only it was Beverly Chew of US Customs who profited from this "illicit" trade. And he charged more than the Laffites did.

You can read more about it in this groundbreaking new article by Pam Keyes on Historia Obscura:

At the Weihsien Internment Camp for Enemy Aliens, the forbidden item was eggs, and the smugglers were local Chinese farmers. When the Commandant of the camp cracked down on smuggling by shooting the farmers he caught smuggling, do you imagine that the smuggling ended?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What is a Veteran

I have the utmost respect for all who served their country in military positions and especially for those who faced death for the cause of liberty. I honor combat veterans and America's fallen heroes. However, up until now, I assumed that on Veterans' Day we celebrate the lives and great deeds of all the patriots who fought for our country. Yet yesterday, my daughter asked me what a veteran is, and today I looked it up. I found an insidious link between the term "veteran" and the idea of somebody exclusively employed by the government at public expense to make war. And a "war veteran" is somebody employed by any branch of the government military to make war on other countries on foreign soil. That would leave George Washington and Jean Laffite entirely out of the running for "war veteran".

Here is what they have to say:

    A military veteran is any person who served for Any length of time in Any military service branch.

    A war veteran is any GI (Government Issue) ordered to foreign soil or waters to participate in direct or support activity against an enemy.  

But is that true? If you defend your own country on American soil not wearing a uniform and not deployed by any branch of the service or ordered to do so by the government, are you not a veteran?

If that is true, then Veterans' Day is not a holiday celebrating America's patriots, but one glorifying the government's power to use public funds to deploy military overseas.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Tacit Consent: A Review of "The Flat" by Arnon Goldfinger

Should you let sleeping dogs lie? If there is a family secret hiding in plain view in your grandmother's apartment in Tel Aviv, should you just let it be? Or should you follow the clues to wherever they may lead?

As I also had a grandmother who lived in Tel Aviv and died during the new millenium, it was interesting to me to compare the contents of the two apartments.

My grandmother was not a hoarder like Gerda Tuchler. In fact, she liked to throw things away. So there was no collection of gloves or cigars or shoes to discard. The only hoarder in the family was my grandfather, but he had died over thirty years before. He hoarded figurines, art and books. Especially books.

Even though my grandfather had had a considerable collection of books in German, my grandmother gave it away to a library years ago. My grandparents came from Poland, but they were both fluent in German. However, my grandmother was angry with the Germans, so she symbolically got rid of all the Germans books, even when she knew at the time that I was studying German and might like to have some of them. I did inherit the bulk of the remaining books, which were in a variety of languages, including Hebrew, English, French, Persian, Latin, Greek, Polish and Spanish. My grandfather was a philologist, after all, and he translated ancient Greek, Persian and Latin texts into Hebrew.

However, there was no Nazi propaganda among my grandmother's personal effects in her apartment in Tel Aviv, and that is where the stories of Gerda Tuchler and of Klara Katz are not at all the same. The Tuchler story in this respect is much more interesting.

Gerda and Kurt Tuchler
Photo Courtesy of IFC

The story is about a seeming collaboration between Zionist activisits and Nazis, who shared at least this small common goal: to get Jews out of Germany. To the Zionists, this was in order to found a Zionist state in Israel, where these Jews would be members of the ruling majority. For the Nazis, it was so that Germany could get rid of an ethnic minority. In one sense, these are completely different goals. But in another sense, there was a lot of commonality of interest, in that if many Jews left for Palestine, there would be fewer Jews left in Germany. Acting on this common interest, Kurt Tuchler, Arnon's grandfather, and Leopold von Mildenstein took their wives on a tour of Palestine, and von Mildenstein wrote about this sight seeing tour in the Nazi paper, the Angriff.

I have written about the historical context of this story here:

But this documentary is not about the historical context. It is deeply personal. And what Arnon Goldfinger uncovers is that even after the war, the Tuchlers and the von Mildenstein's continued their friendship, meeting and exchanging gifts, and ignoring the fact that Gerda Tuchler's mother was deported from Germany to meet her death at Theresienstadt, a Nazi run camp, while von Mildenstein continued to serve under Goebbels, as a propagandist.

Arnon Goldfinger relies on his mother, Hannah, the daughter of Kurt and Gerda Tuchler,  to translate documents for him, because she is fluent in German, while he is not, but he is astonished when none of this supposedly new information about her parents seems to phase her.

Arnon Goldfinger shows Edda von Mildenstein evidence that her father was a Nazi
Photo Credit: ZeroOne Film

They go to visit Edda Milz von Mildenstein, the Mildensteins' daughter, and she, too, seems very cooperative, but while denying that her father was a Nazi, she shows a remarkable lack of surprise when presented with evidence that he was one after all.

The spin that is put on these apathetic reactions to shocking new information about the past is that this is an example of "second generation repression." But I think the answer is really much simpler. Both Hannah Tuchler and Edda von Mildenstein already knew all of the story. It was not new information for them at all. Children hear parents talking. They learn about events as they unfold. Later, they only talk about those things that they think will be helpful to their own children. They do not volunteer messy information. But that does not mean they do not know.

Hannah and Edda  saw no benefit in airing all the embarrassing facts with Arnon. But when he insisted, they went along with it. They were gracious, but it was no shock to them, as they had lived with these open secrets all their lives.  They were just children then. What were they supposed to do about it?

I think it is interesting how similar the reactions of both daughters actually are. They may not have met before the documentary, but they shared a common past. And the collaborators were, after all, their parents. They were only innocent children at the time.

More and more as I review history, I see how people who are supposedly on opposite sides of crucial historical battles were actually collaborating with each other, because they shared common interests.  The British and the Americans were collaborating against the Baratarian privateers during the War of 1812. They were more interested in taxing citizens to pay for their fleets than they were in the rights of  the people to import and export goods across the ocean tax free. The legitimacy of their governments, in the eyes of both the British and the American career military, trumped any rights of citizens to free trade.

 The prisoners at Weihsien were collaborating with their Japanese captors, and they turned a blind eye when the Japanese executed Chinese farmers who had risked their lives to bring them eggs to eat. Later, it was the Japanese guards who sold prisoners contraband eggs at prices marked up to line their own pockets. But did the prisoners refuse to buy those eggs from people who had killed the farmers who sold them?

Today, citizens collaborate with their governments every day in stripping themselves and other citizens of their rights. And yet we get in trouble with our neighbors if we talk about it openly.

A breach of etiquette occurs every time someone mentions an atrocity. If I were to write: "And you, reading this right now, if you are an American who was of age in 1993: You didn't know that children were being killed  by the ATF at Mt. Carmel in your name? I don't believe you, because it was shown to the whole nation on TV.  The siege lasted for over a month. Why did you not rise up in arms and prevent this from happening? You didn't know, or you just didn't care?" -- People would think I was just being rude. Clearly most individuals are not responsible for the acts of their governments, even though we give lip service to the notion of  "democracy". But that whole "by the consent of the people" thing is a sham. If there were a social contract, and if we were tacitly giving our sanction to it by doing nothing, then all of us would be guilty right now every time a Federal agent killed an innocent citizen.

What's really interesting to me about this documentary by Arnon Goldfinger is how it deals with the etiquette of discussing past atrocities. There's a scene in the movie where Arnon is asking his mother how to bring up the Nazi issue. They both agree that using the word "Nazi" is really gauche. It's too stigmatizing.  So they decide to use other words to discuss the matter. In the end, Arnon asks Edda's husband: "What was Leopold's job?" "His job?"  "I mean, what did he do during the war?"  The answer: It was mostly paperwork.

Well, of course it was paperwork. Von Mildenstein was a propagandist, not an executioner.

Do the children of ATF agents also get asked that question sometimes. do you think? What was your father's job in Waco in 1993? How do Janet Reno's grandchildren, if she has any, regard her job as Attorney General? Was it mostly paperwork?

The real problem is not, in my opinion, that people under unjust regimes are repressed, in the psychological sense of not knowing what is going on, because they bury it deep in their subconscious. The real problem is that it's not polite to talk about it, and many believe that by looking on the rosy side of the picture, they are actually making life better for everybody else.

 Today, most of my friends on Facebook respond positively to pretty pictures of puppies, kittens, flowers and sunsets. They post memes that say that reality is what you make of  it --  not by fighting on the field of battle for your rights and the rights of others less powerful than yourself --  but by showing loving kindness toward every person you meet.

I believe that von Mildentsein and the Tuchlers were always kind to everyone they met.  They lived and died by that motto.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Kinder Face of Discrimination

"I don't wish them any harm. They just don't belong here. They should go back to their natural habitat." I hear this a lot about chimpanzees. But did you know that the same arguments have been made in the past by seemingly well meaning people, about other human beings?

One example is Henry Clay, and his organization, The American Colonization Society that was instrumental in setting up American freed blacks in Liberia. I have written about this before on one of my blogs, here:

The Example of Liberia

It is all very well and good to set up a State where a group of people can live in freedom and be the majority in power. But it is quite another thing to insist that all members of an ethnic minority leave for that safe haven, and that those who don't leave should be sent to camps where they will be exterminated. That is what happened when the Nazis came to power in Germany. On the one hand, they supported Zionism as the solution to the "Jewish problem". On the other hand, they sent everyone who did not choose to become a Zionist to death camps. These were two sides of the same coin, and in fact a medallion was printed with a star of David on one side and a swastika on the other, to illustrate the point.


Leopold von Mildenstein  was a member of the German nobility, who while working as  a leader of the Nazi Party in the 1930s, showed great support for Zionism, as a mutually beneficial solution to what he saw as the problem of the presence of Jews in Germany.  Von Mildenstein showed a genuine interest in Zionism and even attended Zionist Conferences in order to learn more about the movement. In 1933  Mildenstein and his wife toured Palestine, accompanied by Kurt Tuchler, of the Zionist Federation of Germany, and his wife. They became lifelong friends.

On his return, Mildenstein's suggestion that the solution to the Jewish problem lay in mass migration to Palestine was accepted by his superiors within the SS. From August 1934 to June 1936 Mildenstein was put in charge of the Jewish Desk with the title of Judenreferent (Jewish Affairs Officer) in the headquarters of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the Security service of the SS, Section II/112; his title meaning that he was responsible for reporting on "Jewish Affairs," under the overall command of Reinhard Heydrich.[8] During those years Mildenstein favoured a policy of encouraging Germany's Jewish population to emigrate to Palestine, and in pursuit of this policy he developed positive contacts with Zionist organizations. SS officials were even instructed to encourage the activities of the Zionists within the Jewish community, who were to be favoured over the assimilationists, said to be the real danger to National Socialism. Even the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws of September 1935 had a special Zionist provision, allowing the Jews to fly their own flag.[2][6]Source:

When Jewish emigration from Germany to Palestine turned out to be proceeding too slowly for the Nazis, von Mildenstein's milder methods gave way to those of  Eichmann, his replacement as an expert on the :"Jewish problem". After the war, when millions of German Jews had been exterminated, the von Mildensteins, then living in West Germany, and the Tuchlers, who now lived in Tel Aviv,  continued to correspond. Their relationship remained cordial until the very end.

When we think about Jane Goodall and her expertise on chimpanzees, we should keep the example of Leopold von Mildenstein in mind. One does not need to be filled with hatred for a minority in order to do great damage, and a few images of grateful chimpanzees hugging Jane Goodall for her kindness to them should not blind us to the fact that the Jane Goodall Foundation has as its goal the return of all chimpanzees to Africa, and the elimination of all chimpanzees not in the wild.  In pursuit of this goal, they plan to have any chimpanzees living in private homes or research facilities sent to camps called sanctuaries, from which they will never emerge, and where they will never be allowed to reproduce. That is their final solution to the chimpanzee problem.

How we feel about Leopold von Mildenstein should ultimately determine our attitude towards the Jane Goodall Foundation and its efforts on behalf of chimpanzee repatriation in Africa and their elimination outside of  their native habitat.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Fallen Leaf

Sometimes, at the very moment when a leaf falls off a tree in autumn, a great gust of wind sweeps it up, and it appears to fall upward, instead of down. This is the same way we seem to be uplifted when we fall in love. Only later do we realize that we are falling, sinking into the ground.

When I think of that aspect of falling in love,  Luna Tsai, a character in Our Lady of Kaifeng , reminds me of the song "A Fallen Leaf".

What seems like the warm affection of an autumn breeze can be the cruel blow of inevitable death and decay.

But you would never know this watching the leaves as they fall by ones and twos from the sky, far above the tree from which they sprang.

They seem to be flying so high, they could never touch the ground again.

Friday, October 16, 2015

On the Causes of Inflation

"Just before winter sets in, the butterflies are most active."

"Can anyone deny the beauty of a butterfly? Or of the flowers on which it depends?"

Those are the words of Commandant Izu, a character in my work in progress, Our Lady of Kaifeng: Courtyard of the Happy Way. 

Does observing the beauty of the seasons help diminish suffering in the present? Do governments nudge those under their power by giving them things or taking things away? Should we be thankful for what we have, and if we are very full of gratitude for the little we have, will this ensure that we are compliant and do not rebel?

Of course, inflation is a massive government engineered nudge to force people to spend, rather than save money. But is that  merely a psychological manipulation? Can a single, isolated consumer resist the need to spend more on staple goods once the currency is inflated? Does scarcity cause prices to go up? Can rationing keep prices down?  Is the price of food higher because of inflation, or do we cause inflation ourselves when we spend more and more on the same foods? If we tried hard enough, could we just refuse to spend the money?

If the intended effect of food rationing is a fixed price on goods, can this intended effect ever be achieved, given that for every forbidden fruit, there exists a black market, where it can be purchased, if the price is right?

Related Posts

Saturday, October 10, 2015

What Forgiveness is For

Today, on Historia Obscura, there is an excellent new article by Pam Keyes:

It introduces two new characters to the tale of Jean Laffite:  George Poindexter and Fulwar Skipwith. As I am a bit of a name fancier, I am fascinated by the name "Fulwar Skipwith", and I have every expectation of learning more about him in future installments.

But for now, here is what it is good to know about pardons:

  • Pardons are not usually issued after someone has done a good turn. In many cases, they have to be issued in advance, so that a person under arrest or in prison can go forth and do good. This was the case for the Baratarian privateers.
  • Sometimes a pardon is just a roundabout way of admitting that what you accused or convicted someone of is not true. The Baratarians were smugglers and privateers, not pirates.
  • The great value of the pardon to the person issuing it is that he may now resume a regular relationship with the person pardoned.
  • We do not pardon people and then banish them. We do not pardon people and then execute them. Pardoning is not in order to calm the anxiety of the person who felt wronged -- it is so that the person pardoned can become part of regular society, and can contribute and serve.
George Poindexter did not appear to understand these elementary facts about how pardons work,  because he tried to get the government to retroactively take back pardons that were already issued. If the Baratarians had not been pardoned, they could not have served in the Battle of New Orleans. It may have been that the anticipated service was necessary to take full advantage of the pardon, but no service could have been rendered had the presidential pardon not already existed.

Today, we hear people say things like: "I do not forgive for the other person's sake. I do it for my own sake, so that I can know inner peace. I forgive, but I do not forget, and I don't ever need to see them again." Forgiveness is a spontaneous emotion, but like all emotions it serves a function: to rehabilitate people, so that we can work with them.  To forgive people, and then to refuse to have anything to do with them again is not forgiveness. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Angry War God

When I moved into my first apartment in Taiwan, a local friend gave me as a housewarming gift a framed picture of an angry god. "It will bring you luck. This god will watch over you in your new life."

"He looks angry," I said.

"I chose this god for you, because of all the gods, you remind me the most of him. So I think this is the right god for you," she replied.

With logic such as this, I was afraid to ask her what she really thought of me. I certainly hoped that I did not look like the angry god in the picture. He had a red face and bulging eyes, and he looked about ready to burst from apoplexy.

But I kept the picture and its frame, and I still keep it on the mantel for luck in my current home in the Ozarks. I like to think of this as my personal war god, who will help me keep up the good fight, while everybody around me is giving in and searching only for inner peace, and to hell with what happens to everybody else.

In my current work in progress there is a character called Sergeant Bu-Shing-de, loosely based on a real Japanese enlisted man whom almost everybody in the camp hated and despised and feared, because he was a real bully whose favorite phrase (in Chinese) was "It's not allowed." Sergeant Bu-Shing-de appears in almost every account of camp life that I have ever read for the internment camp in Weihsien. In most descriptions he does not come off in a very favorable light.

But there is one account that also shows him in a different, contrasting  light, and that is to be found in Langdon Gilkey's Shantong Compound.

Much to his surprise, Lawrence was invited to have tea one day in Bo-shing-de's quarters, a large bedroom in one of the walled-off sections of the compound. When he entered this drill-sergeant's room, Lawrence could hardly believe his eyes.
Decorated by the Sergeant himself, it was furnished in the most artistic Japanese taste, illustrating utter simplicity, a remarkable sense of harmonious use of space, and a painstaking attention to detail. At the focal point of the room, complemented by a pair of  classical flower arrangements, was an exquisite shrine to the sergeant's samurai war god. It was true, Lawrence remarked later, that this deity with his grimacing face and bow-legged stance, was hardly a thing of beauty. Yet the harmonious and artistic effect was in such striking contrast to the American soldier's gallery of mother, assorted pin-ups and model airplanes, that the sight of it made Lawrence gasp.
The horrible war god, expressing all the barbarity and cruelty of one side of the Japanese culture, and yet honored in the delicate, sensitive  taste of this cruel soldier, seemed a perfect symbol for the mystery of the Japanese character as I knew it during the war. (Gilkey 1966.47)
Today, when so often we are surrounded by Christians who act like Buddhists and Buddhists who sound like Christians, and people lecture other people about how if they are religious, as they claim to be, they should not be war-like, intolerant and vindictive, it is important to remember that there is more than one kind of religion in the world. Not everybody is using religion to calm their anxiety and to find ways to endure impossible suffering in silence, while not raising a hand against their oppressors. Not every religion tells us to turn the other cheek, and not everyone believes that forgiveness is something that you give away for free to a wrongdoer so that you don't have to be angry, anymore.  Some people still believe in vanquishing and then pardoning their foe -- in that order.

Gilkey, Langdon. 1966. Shantung Compound Harper: San Francisco.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Jean Laffite, People Smuggler

If you are living in a country that is in turmoil and your friends and neighbors and family are being slaughtered due to the color of their skin or their ethnic origin, of course you will pay very good money to someone who will help you escape from that situation. It is only natural.

My own family went through such a smuggling as refugees from Poland in 1939. They made it safely to Palestine, and there were many people along the way who helped them to escape, some of whom got paid.

My grandmother, father and grandfather, who escaped Poland in 1939
This picture was taken in 1938, when they were on vacation.
You can read more about my family's escape from Poland, but for which I would never have existed, here:

My Grandfather's Voice

There are some people who say we should help refugees, but we should frown on anyone who profits from smuggling them into any country. That does not make any sense. If not for such smugglers, where would we all be?

After the revolution in Saint Domingue or Santo Domingo -- now known as Haiti, Jean Laffite helped French refugees escape from a place where they were likely to be slaughtered and brought them safely to Louisiana. One such refugee was Louise de Lassy who eventually became Edward Livingston's second wife.

An Excerpt from Theodosia and the Pirates: The Battle Against Britain
It is a strange thing when people sympathize with refugees, but not with those who help them. The refugees themselves have different stories to tell.

Excerpt from Theodosia and the Pirates: The Battle Against Britain

Free trade despite embargoes is the only reason many people exist today. It is because some are brave enough to risk the penalties for saving others that anybody ever gets saved. And in case you think that taking an exorbitant fee for saving somebody else's life at the risk of your own is bad, please consider that the more government battleships you send against such rescuers, the higher the fee will go. There is a free market out there that is as inexorable as the tide. It is as much a part of nature as the price of black market eggs in China  in World War II, when Europeans were interned by the Japanese and forbidden to buy any. Chinese farmers risked death -- and several were shot -- so that Europeans could eat. Keep that in mind when you try your next price fixing ploy.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Realistic versus Romantic Fiction

Henry James aged 11 with his father
One of the things that made the twentieth century such a somber era to live in was the lack of a romantic outlook in the prevailing literature and culture. Anything short of "realism" in prose fiction was frowned upon by the literate elite, whereas in the visual arts, representational images gave way to undecipherable smears and in poetry, meter ceded to formless epigrams and stream of consciousness ramblings.

The move away from romanticism did not begin all at once at the turn of the twentieth century. Henry James, an American ex-pat author of the realistic tradition, straddled both centuries. In an early trip to Europe, he met with Dickens and George Eliot, ostensibly romantics. He also had a period during which he esteemed the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, an American romantic of the highest caliber. But somewhere along the way, Europeans like Balzac and Turgenev  led him toward social and psychological realism.

Henry James in 1890
Source: Wikipedia
What does realism consist of in fiction? While it purports to be a movement that shows life as it is and people as the social animals that they are, one of the characteristics by which readers of fiction recognize realism is a depressing penchant for painting small people leading ordinary lives filled with uselessness and despair. It is not so much that a work of realistic fiction does not have a plot -- the best of them actually do -- as that the plot often shows the gradual death of all hope in the lives of ordinary people. 

Take as an example, Washington Square by Henry James. I read it the day before yesterday and reviewed it yesterday, here:

In my review, I compared Catherine Sloper, the heroine of Washington Square, with Catherine Halsey, a minor character in The Fountainhead. Washington Square is a very short novel with no subplots. The Fountainhead is a rather longish novel, with several subplots that feed neatly into the main plot. The two Catherines, though, encounter very similar experiences. They are both ordinary women with no special talent, grace or beauty, but each of them does have genuine feelings and a certain degree of backbone and self-respect, and each is jilted by a man she has fallen deeply in love with, while a paternal figure who disapproves of the match does his best to stand in the way and even gloat when things do not work out.

The tragedy for Catherine Sloper in Washington Square is not just that she lost a would-be lover, but also that she stopped loving her father as a result of this event, so that in the end, though she was a very loving and loyal person by nature, she no longer loved anybody and lived a life of quiet suffering. This is especially hard on someone who does not have any other real interests besides her relationship to other people. Catherine did spend her time doing other things. She was not idle. She embroidered. She volunteered to help the poor. But the way that Henry James described her, she was not consumed or obsessed by these activities. They were just a way to pass the time. 

In Rand's version of the story, Catherine lost her soul, because she seemingly forgot how very much she had felt for Peter Keating. I mean, she remembered all the events -- including the feelings she had had -- but she no longer felt that way, and she could no longer even imagine feeling that way, when she met Keating again years later. 

From a deep romantic point of view, a love once experienced never dies. If that love dies, then the capacity to love dies with it. In The Fountainhead, it was as if Catherine had had a lobotomy.  She is not the main heroine, and her lack of courage in maintaining a consistent emotional life is contrasted with the behavior of Roark and Dominique, whose love endures despite all manner of trials and separations -- including faithlessness on the part of Dominique. 

 Ayn Rand herself surprised people by still harboring deep feelings for the man she first fell in love with in Russia decades later, despite the fact that he gave her no reason for maintaining those feelings. (Read The Passion of Ayn Rand by Barbara Branden.)

The contrast between how being jilted is treated by a "realist" and a "romantic" highlights the different psychologies of both personality types and shows us that the real issue is not realism or lack thereof. There is more than one psychological reality in the universe, because there is more than one type of person. What seems realistic to one does not necessarily seem so to another. And when an entire literary movement is made to appeal to a certain personality type and to crush all others, this is a political move. It is not about aesthetics or about psychology or about realism. It is about how certain people want reality to be. 

In Rand's work, the person wanting reality to be that way is Ellsworth Toohey, Catherine Halsey's uncle, who is deeply involved in art and architecture and literature, and is staunchly against romanticism. But in Henry James' novel, it is Catherine's own father, Dr. Sloper, and he is more concerned with being right than in his daughter's happiness. While there is a certain psychological realism in the way this process is described, not all fathers are like that. 

Jean Laffite is forced to accept his daughter  Denise's marriage to a man he despises
Excerpt from Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain

Some care so much about a daughter's happiness that they might even tolerate a son-in-law they despise rather than choosing to ruin the daughter's life.. And when they are proved right, instead of gloating, they try their best to fix things. Instead of recriminating with their daughters, such fathers stand by and support their injured daughters emotionally, to allow them to heal and love again. 

After Denise realies her mistake, Jean does not gloat
Excerpt from Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain

If realism means showing a worst case psychological scenario, then Washington Square is an excellent example of realism. Yet it is good to keep in mind that a sad story is not sad simply because of what has happened, but because of how people deal with what has happened. And while in terms of what physically happens in a Henry James novel, we may safely say it is nothing much, psychologically characters suffer extreme devastation. In a romantic story, where a great deal of physical violence may take place, characters are allowed to grow and heal and try again, even if they have made a very bad mistake the first time around. 

Denise discusses her new beau, Frank Little, with her father
Excerpt from Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain
Henry James was very squeamish about sex, so nothing even remotely sexual is alluded to in Washington Square. But whether a work is explicit or not, some understanding of the psychology not only of affection and attachment but also extreme passion is required. And a truly realistic work must take into account that the happiness we find in life is as much due to our own personality type as to the things that may or may not happen to us. Active characters, like Denise Laffite, take matters into their own hands, and even if they are sorely beaten in their quest for happiness, they learn to pick themselves up and have the courage to try again.

But there is more to the contrast between a romantic work and a work of realism than the ways they handle love and marriage. There is also the attitude toward money, work, and patriotism that plays a part. In Washington Square embroidery is a genteel, pointless occupation for women. In Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain weaving is both an artistic occupation for Denise and the hope for founding a textile industry for her father. Obsession with work and with building things is a characteristic of romanticism as much as is obsession with love, and all of these are seen as primary, while established society is a secondary matter.

That such people existed in reality as well as in fiction  is borne out by the fact that the American frontier was settled, that the Revolutionary War was won, that the American constitution was written, and the War of 1812, which saw Americans beaten and humiliated in the Sack of Hampton, still ended in American victory --- financed not by the government, but by independent privateers.

If realistic fiction only paints characters whose whole world is social and their place in society is static, then it omits the small but signifcant segment of humanity that does not value people based on their zip code or whether they live uptown or downtown. Some people do pioneer new ideas and live in wild places and fight to defend a country they love despite its government's rejection of them. But then other people go the other way. 

It is probably no coincidence that Henry James ended up leaving America and becoming a naturalized British subject. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Ships Names: "The Patriot" and "La Diligente"

Theodosia Burr Alston was last seen on board The Patriot  on December 31, 1812. That was also the last time The Patriot itself was ever seen. At least, it was never spoken of under that name again. But did you know there is a long history of ships named The Patriot? It is a very common name for a ship.

Ships named the Patriot

The above link is to a database of reference to ship names. There have been many such ships over the years, including during the 20th century. But it is interesting to note that even during the War of 1812 there were ships named Patriot on both sides of the ocean.

Once a ship was captured, its name was often changed, and it was put to good use by new owners. Could the ship named The Patriot on which Theodosia was sailing have been captured? Might its name have been changed? In Theodosia and the Pirates: The Battle Against Britain that is exactly what happened:  The Patriot was renamed La Diligente.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Grammar, Manners and Politics

Part of a Letter from John Adams to John Jay, reporting on his audience with King George III

Manners and grammar have a great deal to do with politics, in the sense that every language reflects its primary culture, and every culture is shaped by the political realities of how power is allocated in a given society. To a free people, unaccustomed to bowing and scraping, the requirement of showing deference by lowering themselves and changing their posture can be quite humiliating. The Europeans and Americans in the internment camp at Weihsien, Shandong Province, China, during WWII felt deeply abased by having to bow to their Japanese captors, as this was an "alien" practice to the societies from which they came. They thought that no free person, least of all an American, should ever have to bow down to another person. But did you know that the custom of bowing and scraping before others was actually an integral  part of the culture from from which they sprang less than two centuries earlier?

John Adams, as Minister to Britain, was required to execute a number of courtly bows before King George III.  That he felt a little silly doing this is illustrated by the following clip in which the meeting is dramatized:

Here are some of the words spoken by John Adams to King George III:

“Sir, The United States of America have appointed me their Minister Plenipotentiary to your Majesty . . . It is in Obedience to their express Commands that I have the Honor to assure your Majesty of their unanimous Disposition and Desire to cultivate the most friendly and liberal Intercourse between your Majesty’s Subjects and their Citizens . . . The appointment of a Minister from the United States to your Majesty’s Court, will form an Epocha in the History of England & of America. I think myself more fortunate than all my fellow Citizens in having the distinguished Honor to be the first to stand in your Majesty’s royal Presence in a diplomatic Character . . .”

Notice the grammatical agreement between the noun phrase "The United States of America" and the verb "to have" -- the verb being conjugated in the plural.  Also, the possessive pronoun "their" agrees with the plural noun phrase in number. At the time, it was understood that the United States were States which had chosen to be united, and it was clear that they were also divisible.  Over time, and especially after the Civil War, as the 10th amendment lost its power, the United States came to be a noun phrase that took singular agreement. Today we usually say "The United States is" and not "The United States are".

Language changes slowly over time, so that the distinction between a plural "United States  of America" and a singular did not actually arise all in one fell swoop after the Civil War, but some examples of singular can be found before, and some examples of plural remain even to this day in the set phrase "these United States". Nevertheless, a change in the balance of power between the States and the Federal government is clearly reflected in the way Americans use grammatical agreement.

Excerpt from Ping & the Snirkelly People

This change in the way the term "United States" is conceptualized can be confusing to innocent language learners and to people who do not understand the entire history of the United States. Likewise, the assertion that the United States are/is indivisible can be confusing to innocent bystanders unaware of political dogma. In my children's book, Ping & the Snirkelly People, the issue comes up unexpectedly when a Chinese girl in an American first grade class room is trying to understand the difficult words in the Pledge of Allegiance, when it is clear that none of the native speaker six-year-olds  in her class have any idea what they are chanting each morning.

The division of the United States into independent, sovereign states had been all but forgotten by the time of Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency, when Ping was visiting the country and learning about its ways.

Often, it is the people who are caught up in the change of manners and grammar of their ambient culture who are least aware of the changes. It is easier for an outsider to see what has happened. In order to understand our language, we need to step outside our language. In order to see our culture clearly, sometimes we need to look at it through the eyes of a foreigner.

Ping & the Snirkelly People

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Theodosia Burr Alston's Disappearance was Used in Anti-Privateer Propaganda

There are many stories about what may have happened to Theodosia Burr Alston after she boarded The Patriot on December 31, 1812. Most of those stories involve pirates: pirates forcing her to walk the plank, pirates turning her into their love slave, pirates slitting her throat because they are after her jewels. Every such story was used to hurt Theodosia's father Aaron Burr, both personally and politically,  and in the process to bolster the Neutrality Act under which he was persecuted for his expedition against Spanish held Mexico.

It is one of the practices of the political propagandist to recruit as victims of the policies they are against people near and dear to their political enemies. So it should come as no surprise that some of the people accused of killing Theodosia were not pirates at all, but rather law abiding privateers. One of these was Captain Jean DesFarges, who while working for Jean Laffite, was accused of piracy for taking as a prize a Spanish ship named the Filomena . This occurred about seven years after Theodosia's disappearance. The purpose of the prosecution and later hanging of DesFarges and his crew was to discredit Jean Laffite and his privateering establishment in Galveston. As part of the general smear campaign,  a baseless story was published to the effect that DesFarges had confessed to murdering Theodosia.

The following newspaper account, countering the "pirate" story, from The Famer's Repository, Charleston, W. Vrginia, August 30, 1820 was provided to me by Pam Keyes;

The New Orleans Advetiser of August 21 contradicts the story in the New York prints of June 1820, of certain pirates, executed at New Orleans, having confessed they composed part of the crew of the pilot boat Patriot who murdered Mrs. Alston. The Advertiser discredits the whole account: and upon the testimony of the Rev. Mr. Larned, who attended them in prison from the day of condemnation to the moment of their being swung from the gallows, "It did not appear that they had ever stained their hands with blood."

Nevertheless, the legend of Theodosia having been done away with by pirates lives on. And very few people understand that DesFarges and his crew were not pirates. Likewise, Jean Laffite is known as a pirate, and Aaron Burr, while acquitted of treason, is known as a traitor.  This is how political operatives kill two birds with one stone.