Our Revolution

I am reading a book that is a collection of letters, papers, journal and diary entries written by people who lived and fought during the American Revolution. It is intriguing, since it provides conflicting points of view — both pro-American and pro-English. It is fascinating, for example, to read an account of the battle of King’s Mountain in South Carolina in 1780 first from the American point of view and then from the British. They read like there were two such battles! So much for objective reporting.  Several other things have already struck me about those articles.

To begin with, it is quite clear that the British simply do not understand why the colonists have rebelled. They remain bewildered throughout. They held the colonists in low regard to begin with and thought they would never be foolish enough to take on the British army; when it happened in Lexington and Concord they were dumbstruck. But through it all they simply couldn’t grasp why these “rebels” as they called them did not want the protection of the mighty British army and navy. After all, they had recently fought together to toss out the French from the colonies and why on earth would they not want to remain as loyal citizens of Great Britain?

During the war Britain made several attempts to settle the conflict peaceably, even to the point of promising no taxes whatever! But they never would accept the idea that America was an independent nation. Indeed, they scoffed at the notion. But it was American independence that was the sticking point — together with skepticism about the reliability of the word of the British parliament.

There were innumerable instances of utter brutality on both sides. The Hessians, who fought as allies with the British, along with various Indian tribes, were particularly brutal, raping, pillaging, and burning homes seemingly at will — despite orders form the British to cease and desist. But, on the other hand, there is an entry in a journal written by a colonial soldier who describes the killing of two Indians, who were scalped, and who were then stripped of their flesh from the waist down in order to provide the soldier with a pair of trousers! The entry is written in a casual matter-of-fact style that makes the reader shudder.

We read about the chronic inability of Washington to maintain a fighting force. His frustration with the unpredictable and undisciplined militia is palpable in reading his repeated requests for a standing army. And there were repeated requests for clothes and support as well. The militia was weakened by lack of discipline and short terms of enlistment; desertions were commonplace. When deserters were caught they were summarily shot (as were spies on both sides), but they were seldom caught and Washington’s forces were rarely numerous enough or well enough clothed, fed, and armed to successfully defeat the enemy. Three years into the war the army was exhausted and many, in the South especially, were unwilling to fight. Victories were rare. If the French had not decided to join the colonists the war would have been over fairly quickly and with a completely different outcome.

One entry warmed my heart since it was written by a soldier who fought in one of the rare successes Washington experienced early in the war: the battle of Princeton. The author describes the behavior of one of my ancestors — a Brigadier General who fought with Washington and who died from wounds sustained in that battle — as “courageous.” I was pleased to read that, but there were numerous examples of courage along with examples of awful brutality on both sides and the material provides us with a remarkable glimpse into the way people behave during  times of great upheaval. One reflection written by Thomas Brown to his friend David Ramsay about the war in Georgia in 1781 is worth quoting:

“A civil war being one of the greatest evils incident to human society, the history of every contest presents us with instances of wanton cruelty and barbarity. Men whose passions are inflamed by mutual injuries, exasperated with personal animosity against each other, and eager to gratify revenge, often violate the laws of war and principles of humanity.”

Additionally, we are allowed to glimpse into the lives of those who refused to fight. The Quakers, of course, but also many who remained loyal to England — even to the point of writing letters to local papers satirizing the behavior of the colonists. Many of these Tories, loyal to the King, later joined on the side of the British as the war wore on. But neutrality was itself a battle. We are allowed to see the conflict, even within homes, between those who thought the colonists were warranted in rebelling against Britain and members of the same family who remained loyal to the British throughout. In fact, James Fenimore Cooper write a novel about those very conflicts between two daughters within the home of a wealthy farmer in New York whose house was large and well suited to provide shelter and food for tired and hungry soldiers (usually officers, of course) on both sides of the conflict.

In a word, we rediscover the fact that war brings out the best and the worst in folks, which is not new. But we also come to realize that the issues that brought on that war were never clear to many who participated in it, many did not want to have anything to do with the war, and it may or may not have been worth such widespread death and destruction for so many years.

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Earning Respect

I didn’t watch this year’s ESPYs where a number of overpaid and self-involved athletes are placed in the spotlight to receive even more attention and applause. I did, however, get a glimpse at the highlights.  Some of the awards make sense and are well deserved, but in general it’s just one more chance for these athletes to be seen on television. One of the awards this year, the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, went to Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, Olympic decathlete who won a gold medal in 1976 and at the time was reputedly the greatest male athlete on the planet. He (She) has changed mightily. You wouldn’t recognize him (her). During her tearful speech, looking for all the world like something dragged backwards through a bush, she thanked her children for their support during her ordeal; she wanted our respect.

I have no problem whatever with Ms Jenner’s sex change. I applaud it. Perhaps it did show courage, though I would look for someone who fought off a seemingly fatal disease if I were making the choice, or perhaps Ray Rice’s wife. What Caitlyn did was something she says she simply “had to do.”  But the problem I really had was when she looked at the camera, mascara running down her face, and insisted that anyone who makes the choice she made should be shown “respect.” At that moment, the little devil on my left shoulder told me, she looked and sounded like someone who absolutely did NOT deserve respect. But that was him speaking, I won’t quarrel. Well, maybe a bit. I want to tighten up the word “respect.” I think she was using it rather loosely.

The word “respect” has reference to rights which have a colorful history. The Greeks never talked about rights, perhaps because they thought themselves superior to all other peoples on earth. Perhaps they were. But the medieval theologians, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, spoke of rights as “God-given” to all humans at conception. This, of course, is the root of the ongoing fight about abortion. But the notion was picked up in the age of Enlightenment by such thinkers as John Locke who dropped the theological overtones and referred to what he called “natural rights,” which were attributed to all persons at birth simply because they are human. Persons don’t earn them and, as Thomas Jefferson was to note, they are “unalienable.” They cannot be taken away. These rights must be respected by each of us or we have no grounds whatever for claiming rights for ourselves. And the notion that certain groups have rights that apparently do not pertain to others, such as women, blacks, or native Americans, is nonsensical on Locke’s view. All humans have rights simply by virtue of being human. Some thinkers have maintained that we could forfeit our natural rights through heinous crimes, such as murder, but in general they are “unalienable.”

But then there are also civil rights, which we have when we become citizens and which we can have taken away by the government, presumably in consequence of a criminal act whereby we are locked up and lose the right to vote or lose our driving license after repeated DUIs. During the years when hell was breaking loose in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany, no one had any rights, civil or natural — not even those in power. Anyone at any time could be sent to concentration camps where they were simply annihilated, erased from memory. Anyone who claimed to remember those who were sent away found themselves in the same boat. Welcome to totalitarianism in spades!

In the end, respect, which those with natural rights are deserving of, is a given. We must respect the natural rights of all persons: that’s a moral imperative, the cornerstone of Kant’s ethics. But there is also the respect we earn through our efforts and abilities and which can turn to contempt if we make little effort or squander those abilities and become somehow unworthy of respect. This sort of respect might be attributed to the teacher in the classroom because of her position, let us say. It can be turned to contempt when she shows herself ignorant of the subject or unable to communicate with her pupils. This is the respect we must earn. The question is does Caitlyn Jenner deserve this sort of respect?

The angel on my right shoulder says “yes,” because she had the nerve to go public and share with others her ordeal — and an ordeal it must have been from the look of her. The devil on my other shoulder (yes, he’s still there) tells me she doesn’t deserve our respect because she is making a fool of herself, and in drawing attention to herself — including, so I have read, wearing revealing apparel in public, apparently designed to show that, yes, she does have breasts  — she is simply on an ago trip.  Such people are not deserving of our respect because they have done nothing to earn it. I’m of two minds on this one, but I tend toward the devil’s view.

And as for receiving the Arthur Ashe Award for courage, that galls me a bit, because there was a man of true courage who did whatever he could to promote the rights of his people, who attacked apartheid in South Africa, who was an exemplary human being, and in the end fought with the aids that had been injected into his bloodstream by mistake with dignity and class. Now, there was real courage. Let’s not be taken in by the imitations.

U.S.A! U.S.A!

The citizens of this country, and Boston in particular, welcomed the news of the capture of 19 year-old Dzhokar Tsamaev with applause and immense pride. Clearly, there was a sigh of relief that could be heard as far away as California as the young man was found, almost by mistake, and the terrible events surrounding the Boston bombing seemed to be at a close. The relief is warranted as the thing this young man and his brother did defy description and raise more questions than we have answers for. But the chest thumping, obscenities from David Ortiz, and shouts of U.S.A! U.S.A! that could be heard around the country must give us pause. Our extravagant patriotism frequently spills over into ugly, chip-on-the-shoulder jingoism. And often it is not the least bit deserved.

From all reports, the young man was badly wounded and in pain when he was discovered hiding in a boat in a wealthy suburb of Boston beyond the net that had been spread to catch him and just before the search for the man was about to be called off. The capture of the young man, barely alive, was touted as an act of heroism on the part of the police and National Guard, when, in fact, the heroic act was that of the man who owned the boat who had the courage to look under the tarp to see if there was someone hiding inside. (Courage is sometimes difficult to distinguish from stupidity. Tsamaev was known to be “armed and dangerous” and peeking under the tarp was not the smartest thing the man ever did: he is lucky to be alive.)  Those involved in the capture showed courage, since they didn’t know what to expect. Yet the rest of us who had nothing to do with the capture acted as though we were the ones who caught the young man and brought him to the hospital. Americans are not short on pride and even arrogance, taking credit for the things that they have had nothing to do with, such as landing a man on the moon, placing a chimpanzee in orbit, or inventing sliced bread. We are not known as a people who hide our candle under a bushel, sad to say.

But the thing that keeps being ignored as this story unfolds is the question why two young men, seemingly perfectly “normal” and even bright and able — the young one even looking somewhat angelic in the photos that have been made public — would resort to this sort of suicidal act. And we hear little, if anything, about the possibility that this act of terrorism may well be a “pay-back” for the acts of terrorism this country is committing even as I write this blog. I speak, of course, of our drone strikes that are taking hundreds of innocent lives while we thump our chests in pride because a 19 year-old boy has been taken alive by an army of law-enforcers after an admittedly horrendous act of cruelty. The only mention of the possible quid-pro-quo is a cartoon I saw in USA Today that showed two monsters holding time bombs, identical in appearance except for the fact that one was wearing a tee-shirt labelled “Made In USA.” The cartoon directed our attention to the fact that the act of terrorism our law-enforcers brought to a close is merely one side of a two-sided coin. When we pause for breath after shouting out how proud we are of this nation and its brave men and women (who do deserve the praise they receive) we might want to ask again why these two very young men did this terrible thing and whether or not, perhaps, recent actions on the part of this country have bred hatred in other regions of the world, actions that are very likely to come back to haunt us repeatedly as a result of our swagger and presumption of moral superiority that leads us to ignore our acts of terrorism against others while we condemn similar acts when they are directed toward ourselves.

Roving On Mars

I recently watched the NOVA episode telling about the building, launching, and successful landing of the Mars rover, “Curiosity.” It was amazing! I sat transfixed as the plethora of team members supported by hundreds of men and women worked their way through the thick tangle of problems connected with such an immense project. I followed closely as they considered every possible eventuality that could arise before and during a two-year venture on a planet where radio signals take fourteen minutes to reach us when the planet is at its closest.

I was inspired afterwards to check my computer for more detailed information about the rover and its myriad of technically sophisticated parts. Just think of the difficulties involved simply to get to the planet Mars safely — an extraordinary thing in itself. Though there had been three rovers before this one none was as complex, sophisticated, or heavy as “Curiosity.” The team had to think of every possibility and develop entirely new systems of delivery to get the capsule containing the rover safely to the planet millions of miles away and land it safely. And once there the two-ton mobile lab had to explore an alien surface in 60 degrees below zero temperatures, take and test soil and air samples, and send the results back to earth along with thousands of photographs. It really does boggle the mind.

It was indeed breathtaking and a marvel to behold, testimony to human intelligence and determination. At one point the parachute designed to slow the capsule down upon entering Mars’ atmosphere ripped apart in the wind tunnel during testing. It was about here that I started to  have questions. The team-member told us that after the first parachute ripped apart they went out and bought six of the most sophisticated cameras they could find to photograph the next test so they could figure out what went wrong. I am sure this was when I began to wonder how much all this must have cost and, the bigger question, why they were going to all this trouble. I never did determine the answer to the first question, but the answer to the bigger question was contained in the name of the rover itself: curiosity. It’s what makes humans climb impossibly high mountains and dive to the depths of the ocean. It is what brought Columbus to this continent (well, Bermuda). And it is an admirable quality indeed.

But probing more deeply into possible explanations we realize that the underlying rationale for what had to be an incredibly expensive venture involving hundreds of man-hours of some of the best and brightest people in America was to find out if there had ever been life on Mars. It’s certainly a question worth asking and I would love to know the answer.

But, again, as I thought about the program and read the material on the computer that gave me more details about the rover and its mission I read hundreds of words, but nowhere was it mentioned what the project had cost. Don’t they want us to know? It had to be hundreds of millions of dollars. And that was the thought that kept sticking in my craw. Hundreds of man-hours and hundreds of millions of dollars to find out whether or not there ever had been life on a distant planet. So I asked myself again, WHY?  What about life on this planet? Why aren’t we willing to commit this country to spending a fraction of that amount of money and man-hours to save this planet? I do wonder.