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