a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

How the Lost Cause was won

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 8th May 2010

Race and Reunion, David Blight, 2001
Harvard University Press

With the end of April came also the end, for this year at least, of “Confederate History Month,” unfortunately resuscitated by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell after a long dormancy under the previous two governors.  Amidst an outcry that apparently surprised the Regent University law graduate, McDonnell hastily reworded his proclamation with a grudging nod to the impropriety of slavery and the possible existence of other points of view on the matter of a rebellion leading to the country’s bloodiest war.

One might reasonably ask why there are no  “Union History Month” or “Victory over Treason and Slavery” celebrations — and that, more or less, is what David Blight did in his book “Race and Reunion,” published in 2001.  Covering the period from the Emancipation Proclamation to the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg — and the release of the notorious film “Birth of a Nation” — it’s a fascinating read.  It’s also  — still, going on ten years later — a useful, jolting reminder of just what was lost as remembering the Civil War became more about rehashing every last engagement, and about getting over it, past it, and around it, than about reflecting why it happened — let alone reflecting on the unfinished business of the human and civil rights of black Americans.

Click above to order this
book or others by Blight.

Reconciliation — on southern terms
Blight’s research led him to soldiers’ remembrances in periodicals of the time such as Century and Harper’s; to the annals and publications of the Southern Historical Society and the Confederate Veteran, and to the schedules and membership rolls of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  But he also paid attention to the writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B DuBois, the short stories of Ambrose Bierce, and the novels of the unjustly forgotten Albert Tourgee (“only fools forget the causes of war”) or Nelson De Forest — as well as the celebration of Klan terror by authors like Thomas Dixon, Jr, or the perhaps more insidious romanticization of the antebellum South by authors like Thomas Nelson Page or Joel Chandler Harris (“Uncle Remus”).

The book tells stories you’ve still almost certainly never heard before: the first Memorial  Day (that is, “Decoration” Day) — held by black Charlestonians to honor and restore the graveyard of Union prisoners of war on the site of the city’s “Race Course,” now Hampton Park; the unveiling of Richmond memorials to Robert E. Lee in 1896, and to Stonewall Jackson in 1875; the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895, when Booker T. Washington gave his “Atlanta Compromise” speech — widely acclaimed at the time, but half wishful thinking, half sadly understandable surrender; the fiftieth anniversary of Gettysburg, but with blacks in attendance only as blanket distributors and latrine cleaners.*  The Washington Post — apparently already a runaway gusher of idiotic political commentary —  marked that occasion by noting that slavery and secession were “no longer discussed argumentatively,” but were “disposed of for all time“; moreover, slavery was something for which “no particular part of the people was responsible unless, indeed, the burden of responsibility should be shouldered by the North for its introduction” (emphasis added by Blight.)

What had happened by 1913 was a “Lost Cause” regional movement as potent, committed, and persistent as the abolition movement had been.  What’s more, it arguably had a greater reach (at least within the U.S.), in that ex-Confederates could and did safely peddle their redefinition — for that’s what it was — of the causes and legacy of the Civil War throughout the country, for good money and to plentiful applause.

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“Law and the Long War,” by Benjamin Wittes – a blog discussion

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th September 2009

Click the image to
place an order for
this book with
Powell’s Books.

This post announces an ambitious and possibly quixotic effort — the attempt of a legal layperson like myself to launch and carry on a discussion about Benjamin Wittes’ “Law and the Long War: The Future of Justice in the Age of Terror,” published in 2008.

Luckily, I’ll be joined in this discussion by my friend “The Talking Dog,” whose legal acumen and training — as well as self-deprecating wit and engaging writing — are always in evidence at his blog of the same name.  “TD’s” interviews of lawyers, policy makers, human rights leaders (most recently with NYU’s Karen Greenberg), and even Guantanamo detainees have been genuine journalism, and are among the finest things the American blogosphere has produced.

Our plan is to take the book chapter by chapter, at no precise schedule other than to take the chapters in sequence.  We hope readers will check Wittes’ book out from the library, borrow it from a friend, or buy a copy for themselves, so they can read along with us and join the discussions we hope for.

We’ve tentatively decided to divide the chapters up as follows:

Announcements – here at newsrackblog and the talking dog
Introduction – discussions at both newsrackblog and the talking dog
Chapter 1.  The Law of September 10 – discussion here at newsrackblog
Chapter 2.  The Administration’s Response – discussion at talking dog
Chapter 3.  The Real Guantanamo – discussion at the talking dog
Chapter 4.  The Necessity and Impossibility of Judicial Review – discussion here at newsrackblog
Chapter 5.  The Case for Congress – discussion here at newsrackblog
Chapter 6.  The Twin Problems of Detention and Trial – discussion at the talking dog
Chapter 7.  An Honest Interrogation Law – discussion at the talking dog
Chapter 8.  Surveillance Law for a New Century – discussion here at newsrackblog
Conclusion – discussions both at newsrackblog and the talking dog

To leave some time for readers to join in (and for me, at least, to gather my thoughts), our first posts about Wittes’ introduction will be sometime around the middle of next week.  At this blog, this post will serve as one “home page” for the overall effort, and the outline above will link to each post as it is written.  We’ll also try to provide “prior chapter” and “next chapter” and other useful navigational links within each post, time permitting.


Why is this worth doing?  I’m tempted to simply answer: what could be more important?  Whether it’s always clear or not, our lives and our rights are both at risk.  We have to evaluate those risks, and decide what to do about them.

For my part, though, this is also partly just an attempt to become more “fluent” in the legal underpinnings of the debates about the habeas corpus and other human rights of detainees, the costs and benefits of the expansion of executive powers,  and the conduct of international relations and military force in this so-called “long war” of ours.

There are also more immediate reasons to do so: Wittes and his book have proved quite influential, perhaps especially of late.  On its publication, the book merited extended discussion at numerous legal blogs, and gained respectful and often warm reviews in the popular media and the academic press.

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Love them while you can: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 31st August 2009

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

— from “Gilead,” by Marilynne Robinson

“Gilead” is that all too rare thing — a beautifully written, absorbing work of fiction written in the voice of a genuinely and believably good man.  The narrator is John Ames, a preacher in the town of Gilead, Iowa, in the late 1950s; though nearing seventy, he has married late and has one young child, to whom he dedicates a journal of what he suspects are his final months of life.

As the passage above suggests, Ames’s writings are also more than that: a vessel for reflection on what matters in life.  The “balm of Gilead” is a biblical reference that even I’m aware of, but it isn’t necessary to be immersed in Christian lore per se, or even to be a casual believer, to be moved to reflection and emotion by Robinson’s writing and Ames’s character.

I write “per se” above because this nation’s own particular “Troy Tale”, the Civil War, also looms throughout the memoir, (many of Ames’s recollections revolve around the John Brown-like figure of his grandfather, who fights in Kansas and later loses an eye in the war itself), and I join writers from Noll to Lincoln in locating an American theology derived from that.  The narrator explains and frames his father’s views here:

My father said when he walked into his father’s church after they came back from the army the first thing he saw was a piece of needlework hanging on the wall above the communion table.  It was very beautifully done, flowers and flames surrounding the words “The Lord Our God Is a Purifying Fire.”  I suppose that’s why I always think of my grandfather’s church as the one struck by lightning.  As in fact it was.

My father said it was that banner that had sent him off to sit with the Quakers.  He said the very last word he would have applied to war, once he had had a good look at it, was “purifying,” and the thought that those women could believe the world was in any way purer for the loss of their own sons and husbands was appalling to him.  He stood there looking at it, visibly displeased by it, apparently, because one of the women said to him, “It’s just a bit of Scripture.”

He said, “I beg your pardon, ma’am.  No that is not Scripture.”

“Well,” she said, “then it certainly ought to be.”

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Book Review: Among the Dead Cities, A.C. Grayling

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th June 2008

Among the Dead Cities, A.C. GraylingThis is a scrupulous and ultimately devastating indictment of the British RAF bombing campaign in Europe and the USAAF one in Japan during World War II. These so-called “area” or (at least in Grayling’s book) “strategic” bombing campaigns had the purpose of creating maximum deaths among citizens of the enemy nation, and of thereby breaking the will and ability to continue supporting their nation’s war effort.

Grayling contrasts these campaigns with so-called “precision bombing” attacks — however inaccurate such bombing often was in practice. Examples of the latter include the RAF’s dam-buster or Peenemunde rocket production facility attacks, the USAAF’s attacks on Schweinfurt ball bearing plants, or similarly motivated and targeted attacks on oil and gas production facilities such as those at Leuna or Ploesti.

Instead, Grayling focuses especially on “Operation Gomorrah”, the mid-1943 attacks on Hamburg, as a hard case in that the war was not yet won as it arguably was in the more famous cases of Dresden, Hiroshima, or Nagasaki. Grayling finds (and rightly, in my view) that “Gomorrah” served no useful purpose and was immoral, conducted with a view simply to maximum casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure.* The bombing raid and ones like it may well have qualified as a war crime even by standards prevailing before and after the war (including those employed at the Nuremberg trials).

Grayling conveys some of the horror and terror of that attack — streetcar glass melting, follow-on bomber crews able to feel the heat from the first attacks in their planes, at least 45,000 dead. (While Grayling draws on many sources, including W. G. Sebald’s famous “On the Natural History of Destruction,” one eyewitness account — “Der Untergang”,** by Hans-Erich Nossack — is an understated classic in its own right.) It should be noted that Grayling explicitly judges the Holocaust to be worse, but adds that has no bearing on whether “Gomorrah” and similar raids were crimes.

Not all of Grayling’s arguments are fully convincing, but to his credit he always considers and evaluates counterarguments. In the main example of this, he argues that morale was if anything hardened and war production was unaffected by area bombing. Yet he also notes that the German war economy had plentiful slave labor and had plundered Europe for raw materials, machinery, and production.*** To employ the kind of analogy Grayling frequently does, if the Nazis devised a machine that repaired factories and fed refugees, but was fueled by concentration camp corpses, would this “success” invalidate attacking those factories and cities? I’m unpersuaded in this respect; the case against “area bombing” ultimately isn’t one of efficacy, but of proportion and humanity.

Yet even by the RAF’s lights, Grayling is right to consider the pragmatic military arguments for and against area bombing; a staggering 55,000 RAF bomber crew members lost their lives in the campaign. Grayling disposes effectively of another argument — the diversion of military manpower and materiel (esp. the feared dual antitank/antiaircraft “88s”) to antiaircraft duty within Germany — by pointing out the same diversion would have happened for a “precision” bombing strategy focused on war industries.

As Grayling points out, this debate is far from academic or “merely” historical. US military doctrine still holds that economic (not merely military industrial) targets are fair game in war, and that weakening enemy civilian morale is a valid strategic goal of bombing. Both postulates appear to contravene elements of newer Geneva Conventions to which the US is not a signatory — but to which much the rest of the world is. Attacks on civilian targets, or undiscriminating attacks to which too many civilians will fall victim, may also be among the indictments of some US actions in Iraq, such as in Fallujah or Sadr City (quite aside from the necessity of the Iraq war in the first place). But those will be the topics of a different book.


* Bomb payloads were calibrated to cause firestorms (hurricane-force winds caused by combined fires, incinerating and suffocating whole city neighborhoods) by inclusion of incendiary devices — and by the inclusion of delayed action bombs calculated to injure or kill firefighters. A version of the latter “one-two punch” tactic was also adopted by some terrorist suicide bomber team attacks in Israel and elsewhere.
** The title of Nossack’s book has been translated as “The End” in English editions. Fair enough, but the word is more complex than that; the literal meaning is “under going,” and Nossack uses it the way it is generally used: for the sinking of a great ship.
*** The explanation Grayling seems to prefer for the puzzling increases in German wartime production was that the Nazi command economy may have had a good deal of slack — room for efficiency improvements — before the war.

NOTE: This review was adapted and expanded from a version published to “Visual Bookshelf”/ReadingSocial; however, I may do more with LibraryThing as I figure out ways to integrate that here.
EDIT, 6/18: “(While Grayling draws…” sentence and ref. to 2d footnote added. Thanks, Nell.

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Book tag: Shock Doctrine, Arsenals of Folly

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 5th March 2008

Having answered Jim Henley‘s call, Nell Lancaster has graciously tagged me, Gary Farber, and JanInSanFran with the task of supplying text — to wit, the 6th, 7th, and 8th sentences on page 123 — from the book closest to where each of us is sitting. I hear and obey — and tag eRobin, Avedon Carol, Tom, and Paul in turn.

At the time I read the tag, that book was “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” by Naomi Klein. For the designated sentences, the context is the Ford Foundation’s prior support for the “Chicago Boys” and “Berkeley Mafia” economics teams that helped bring about major impoverishment and repression of the lower and middle classes in Chile and Indonesia:

After the left in [Chile and Indonesia] had been obliterated by regimes that Ford had helped shape, it was none other that Ford that funded a new generation of crusading lawyers dedicated to freeing the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners being held by those same regimes.

Given its own highly compromised history, it is hardly surprising that when Ford dived into human rights, it defined the field as narrowly as possible. The foundation strongly favored groups that framed their work as legalistic struggles for the “rule of law,” “transparency,” and “good governance.”

I once threatened to try to write about this excellent book, but by now I’d need to reread it to do it justice. The book enraged many libertarian writers for its well-documented portrayal of Milton Friedman as the intellectual godfather of Pinochet/Argentine style economic warfare — and hence of the repression that went hand in hand with that warfare. Yet Klein’s critique of the Iraq disaster bonanza ought to have rung a bell with many of those same writers, if they got that far.

I actually finished that book a while ago; in case this is supposed to be about the book I’m reading, that one is “Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race,” by Richard Rhodes. The text is from a 1984 address by Jerome Wiesner, arguing that it would take just 50 nuclear weapons to put American or Russian society “out of business,” and 300 to destroy it.

It would take a bigger bomb for Los Angeles or New York. If you are a weapons expert you know you should “pepper ’em down”; you would get a better effect. In any event, it does not take many.

As Joseph Cirincione points out in his review of the book**, the United States and the Soviet Union had a combined 65,000 warheads at the height of the Cold War — and still have 25,000 today.

I actually happened to talk with Cirincione about the book, and mentioned that one thing I thought about it was “what about us?” — by which I meant the Nuclear Freeze movement that I spent a great deal of time in during the 1980s. Rhodes’s book spends a great deal of time focused on Reagan and Gorbachev — their head-to-head negotiations in Geneva and Reykjavik, even a chapter length bio of the Russian leader. But Rhodes barely acknowledges or discusses the mass movement that opposed a U.S. nuclear weapons buildup, or even the congressional donnybrooks over MX missile deployment that were defining moments of the Reagan years. I suppose that would have complicated the scope of the book, but whether it’s intended or not, the omission seems to signal that we didn’t matter.

If so, I would beg to differ, even if I can’t prove a causal connection between the Freeze and eventual successes like the INF and CFE treaties. There was a time when nearly every Congressman or -woman was deeply aware of nuclear weapons and of their constituents’ beliefs that there were too many of them and we didn’t need any more of them. Like the narrator in “Masters of War,” we spoke out of turn, and we won those victories, too — even if we’re still in the shadow of thousands of remaining nuclear weapons.

* Hers was quite unusual and interesting, you should have a look.
** Along with three others, which are more about Pakistani/A.Q. Khan proliferation.

EDIT, 3/5: Final sentence of Klein discussion split into two sentences, ‘if they got that far’ added to 2d. Also, “impoverishment” and “economic warfare” moved to the first spots in prior sentences, ahead of “repression”; I’d summarize much of Klein’s point as being that the order matters, just as the motive matters in any crime.
EDITS, 3/6: 25,000, not 26,000; the other 1,000 are divided among the other nuclear powers. Also, on re-reviewing the index, I found 3 references to the nuclear freeze movement; the effect in the text is that Rhodes “barely acknowledges” rather than “doesn’t acknowledge” it.

TAG WATCH: Tom has probably nailed down the Most Eclectic Response Award: “La vie du pape Saint Gregoire, ou la legende du bon pecheur.” Paul checks in with a little light bedtime reading: Walter Isaacson’s “Einstein: His Life and Universe.”

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Shameless commerce division

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th November 2007

Here’s a list of books I’ve read (or am reading) that I can recommend; one of them might make a nice book for you, or maybe a nice gift for someone else this Christmas.

The list is heavy on current affairs, history, historical fiction, and science fiction. There’s nothing in the list that’s terribly eclectic — you’ll have seen most of these books at your local bookstores over the past ten years or so — but maybe one or the other item will be new to you. Links lead to Powell’s Books; if there is a great deal purchased this way, (1) I’ll be astonished, and (2) I’ll get a small commission on each purchase.

Looking for something in particular? Use this:

So that we’re all absolutely clear: I pledge to spend anything I make this way on some combination of cheap entertainment, girls, and of course more books.

PS: don’t use FedEx! American Rights at Work explains why.

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Drum can’t read his (golden) compass

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 26th November 2007

Kevin Drum holds forth on Philip Pullman’s “Golden Compass” series, arguing that Christian right has a point in worrying about the effects of the upcoming movie:

I’m sure the movie itself will indeed be harmless, but the books are every conservative Christian’s nightmare of what the secular left’s real agenda is — assuming you get past the first two volumes, that is. Pullman’s attack on Christianity is foreshadowed in those books, but in the third it’s laid bare with no attempt at even unsubtle Narnia-esque analogies. The Amber Spyglass is the story of how God (yes, the God of Abraham, the one in the Bible) has ruled despotically and malevolently over the Earth for 30,000 years and the forces of good and decency are finally going to kill him. And they do.

Other than the “every conservative Christian’s nightmare” part — and even that is speculative — there’s very little that’s really accurate or helpful about this kind of drive-by analysis of Pullman’s fine “Dark Materials” series. Trouble is, it’s close enough for government and blogging work.

Having argued that Drum actually doesn’t publish spoilers in the above, I’ll try not to as well. I’ll simply note that the God (or “Ancient One”) finally encountered in this story has not ruled at all for most of the time period Drum claims he has, that he is not killed by the “forces of good and decency,” and that He is in fact rather relieved to make his exit when it happens.

But the key fallacy, I think, is that everything depends on what Drum and other Pullman critics mean by “Christianity.” Pullman’s books are in part an attack on organized religion — on the worldly power it wields when it takes a bureaucratized, theocratized, Catholic Church-like form. True, they go further, arguing essentially that if such organized religions are truly representative of God… well, then there’s a problem with God, too. But much more importantly, they are a discussion of the consequences of a focus on eternal life after death rather than on a productive life before it. And they are a discussion of what it means to grow up and understand that. Indeed, Pullman is more ally than antagonist to Christians (and other believers) in one very important way: he doesn’t dispute the notion of a “soul” — rather, he extends and elaborates on it with the daemons accompanying humans in the alternate universe he describes.

Re Drum’s idea that the books are an “attack on Christianity,” there’s arguably an even more important point about Pullman’s books: there is no mention whatsoever of Jesus in any of his discussions of either the Church or its ethereal counterpart, the Authority. Indeed (or instead), the chief protagonists Lyra and Will play a Christ-like role when they make a great but utterly necessary sacrifice at the end of “Amber Spyglass” — moreover, after essentially “re-harrowing” Hell, admittedly with a decidedly different goal in mind than Jesus had in the New Testament.

To me, Pullman’s books are ultimately not so much an attack on religion as an alternative vision of spirituality: sentience and adult choice are the great goods of the universe, to be cherished, husbanded, and multiplied. That, it seems to me, is not such an awful vision for a Christian — even for a conservative Christian — to contemplate.

I also take issue with the whole notion — one Drum doesn’t really contest — that children are necessarily helpless victims of books like these. Earlier this year, I read the “Dark Materials” series to Maddie. She was enthralled, and loved to say that the book would soon be a “major motion picture” in a review she wrote for a summer camp magazine. When we got to the delicately handled (and largely implied) love scene between Will and Lyra, she knew it was a good thing, even if it embarrassed her a little bit.

But when we got to the end, and she saw where things were headed, she let me know she didn’t like how this story was ending at all — and she called a halt to the whole enterprise. We have thus completed 2.995 out of 3 books of the “Dark Materials” series — and it’s likely to stay that way for a while.

And that’s fine with me. When or if she’s ever ready to read the rest, that will be the right time. Meanwhile, we’ve talked about the scary parts, the God parts, the mildly smoochy parts. If Christian spokespersons want to sell believing parents and kids short by claiming they can’t handle this stuff, that’s their business.

But I find it passing strange that the normally sensible Kevin Drum should agree with them, writing “And if I were a mucky-muck in the Southern Baptist Convention, I’d be warning parents away from it too.” Whatever for? A book that’s about, among other things, soul, eternal life, love, growing up, and religion — even if it’s critical of it — ought to be a perfect challenge for those inclined to defend their faith. There’s really nothing to be afraid of — they’re just interesting, challenging works of fiction. Kind of like… well, I’ve said enough.

PREVIOUSLY: 2004/03/18: Missions from God – intro to series; 2004/05/02: A good conversation …between Pullman and Anglican archbishop Rowan Williams; 2007/07/14: Weekend quiz section – my daemon is …drumroll… a mouse. Or maybe a tiger.

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Thanksgiving — everything you know is wrong

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 21st November 2007

The real thanksgiving story is much more interesting than the one we’ve learned. That story about Squanto, the friendly Indian? Even the name is wrong. From Chapter 2 of 1491, by Charles C. Mann:

More than likely, Tisquantum was not the name he was given at birth. In that part of the Northeast, tisquantum referred to rage, especially the rage of manitou, the world-suffusing spiritual power at the heart of the coastal Indians’ religious beliefs. When Tisquantum approached the Pilgrims and identified himself by that sobriquet, it was as if he had stuck out his hand and said, Hello, I’m the Wrath of God.

But he taught the Pilgrims that bit with the fish, right? Well, yes… but there may be a little more to it than that:

So little evidence has emerged of Indians fertilizing with fish that some archaeologists believe that Tisquantum actually picked it up from European farmers. The notion is not as ridiculous as it may seem. Tisquantum had learned English because British sailors had kidnapped him seven years before… In his travels, Tisquantum stayed in places where Europeans used fish as fertilizer, a practice on the Continent since medieval times.

Big deal with helping anyway — it was the smart thing to do, European technology outclassed Indians in every way, right? Not so much:

…the natives soon learned that that most of the British were terrible shots, from lack of practice — their guns were little more than noisemakers. Even for a crack shot, a seventeeth-century gun had fewer advantages over a longbow than may be realized. Colonists in Jamestown taunted the Powhatan in 1607 with a target they believed impervious to an arrow shot. To the colonists’ dismay, an Indian sank an arrow into it a foot deep. […] When the Powhatan later captured John Smith, [historian] Chaplin notes, Smith broke his pistol rather than reveal to his captors “the awful truth that it could not shoot as far as an arrow could fly.”

At least they all sat down together in peace and harmony for that first Thanksgiving? Well, they weren’t that fond of eachother — what really united them was grousing about the neighbors:

By fall the settlers’ situation was secure enough that they held a feast of thanksgiving. Massasoit showed up with ninety people, most of them young men with weapons. The Pilgrim militia responded by marching around and firing their guns in the air in a manner intended to convey menace. Gratified, both sides sat down, ate a lot of food, and complained about the Narragansett. Ecce Thanksgiving.

However, I insist on believing there were cranberries. Happy Thanksgiving!

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Weekend quiz section

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th July 2007

Three quizzes provide you, my readers, with a window into my very soul — and one gives you a chance to change it!

How to Win a Fight With a Conservative is the ultimate survival guide for political arguments

My Liberal Identity:

You are a Reality-Based Intellectualist, also known as the liberal elite. You are a proud member of what’s known as the reality-based community, where science, reason, and non-Jesus-based thought reign supreme.

Take the quiz at

The first comes via the site for a book by Daniel Kurtzman, “How to Win a Fight with a Conservative.” I think shying away from some of the ruder bumpersticker choices affected the result (my choice was “Evolution is just a theory… kind of like gravity,” though I was tempted by “I’m already against the next war.”)

I also rate as a “passionate foot soldier“: “You readily engage in political debate but are apt to bail out before things get too testy.”Hey, no I don’t! Well, maybe I do.

Trouble was, one of those questions was about putting up an even bigger Hillary sign after a hypothetical neighbor puts up a Giuliani sign, and I’m just not there yet.

My top result for Which
Founding Father Are You?
is James Madison

For “Which Founding Father Are You?” I guessed “Benjamin Franklin”, but that choice came in third behind Jefferson and the number one choice, James Madison.

Tellingly, there was no “would you ever own a slave?” question. To be sure, Franklin owned two during his lifetime — but became convinced that slavery was wrong later in his life, and by 1787 had become the president of a Pennsylvania abolitionist society. Jefferson sometimes talked a great game about slavery, but ultimately slaves were (1) the basis for his presidency* and (2) the capital that financed Monticello and his intellectual life; most were never freed, and were sold by his estate to settle debts incurred building the mansion, buying books, stocking the wine cellar, and so forth. Madison also owned scores of slaves, and never freed any of them. (George Washington did — albeit posthumously and with the stipulation that manumission come after his wife’s death. Then again, most had been hers** to begin with.)

Paging ‘Mrs. Coulter” (“Republic of Heaven“) — it turns out one of my favorite books, Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass,” is coming out as a movie this December. My little girl is thrilled — she’s become a big fan.*** As with “Lord of the Rings,” we’re now reading the trilogy together at night, and are now halfway through “The Subtle Knife.”

One of the key things about the alternate universe of “The Golden Compass” is that people there have something like external souls; called “daemons,” they are constant companions or familiars in animal form that change during your youth depending on your state of mind, but settle into a permanent form reflecting your personality once you’re an adult.

At the movie web site, you can take a kind of Myers-Briggs test — e.g., “You generally go with the flow”: strongly disagree, etc. — to learn the form of your daemon. We seem to be a cat family: my little girl got a snow leopard and my wife got an ocelot.

In a kind of reflection of how daemons are initially changeable, you can click on the image to the left to influence the final form of my daemon. I got “tiger” two out of three times now, but the first time I got… a mouse. Given the rest of my family, that would just prove I like to live dangerously, so there.

* According to Akhil Reed Amar (“The American Constitution: A Biography”), Jefferson would have lost to John Adams in 1800 without the electoral votes supplied by southern slave populations under the notorious “3/5” rule.
** I use simple possessives such as “hers” instead of “hers under prevailing notions of property rights at that time” for convenience.
*** She also wonders why anyone would pick Mrs. Coulter as a name. We haven’t got that far yet.

UPDATE, 7/18: Interesting — after reader input, my daemon has cycled from “tiger” to “mouse” and now “lion”, but I remain “modest, responsible, shy, sociable, and solitary.” Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

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America is waiting for a message of some sort or another

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 1st July 2007

While I’m thinking about what and whether to write, here’s some cool stuff I’ve run across on the Internet and elsewhere lately:

The Civil War in Four Minutes — A video on YouTube showing how the area controlled by the Union and the Confederacy ebbed and flowed during the Civil War. It’s really quite satisfying when Sherman marches to the sea. Yay, Sherman! You go, boy.
UPDATE: Aw shoot, the guy had to pull it. Maybe the Abraham Lincoln Museum will put up a link sometime.

enoweb lyrics : My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. — By “cool stuff,” I mean of course “cool for me,” not necessarily “cool for you.” That said, I’m not alone in thinking this Brian Eno/David Byrne album is simply one of the best ever, period, full stop. The “lyrics” are actually snatches of recorded voices of radio talk show hosts, preachers, politicians, folk singers, and oh, yes, an exorcist.In the spirit of Jose Isaza’s annotations: we recently acquired a car with — gasp — a multi-CD player, with this album now ensconced in the #4 slot. So Maddie’s listened to it now to where she likes it even better than “Remain in Light” (#1) — and was observed declaiming “no will whatsoever… no WILL whatsoever… I mean what you gonna do?” to herself the other day.

Hunting around, I’ve discovered there’s now a “Bush of Ghosts” web site about a re-release of the album, with an essay by David Byrne about the making of the album, and even more intriguingly, a site where you can re-mix tracks from two of the… songs, recordings, whatever, “A Secret Life” and “Help me, somebody”:

In keeping with the spirit of the original album, Brian Eno and David Byrne are offering for download all of the multitracks on two of the songs. Through signing up to the user license, and in line with Creative Commons licenses, you are free to edit, remix, sample and mutilate these tracks however you like. Add them to your own song or create a new one. This is the first time complete and total access to original tracks with remix and sampling possibilities have been officially offfered on line. Visitors are welcome to post their mixes or songs that incorporate these audio files on the site for others to hear and rate.

“Once” — I confess I was reluctant to see this movie, but I found out last night I was wrong. Shot on a shoestring budget in Ireland, it features Glen Hansard (turns out he was also in “The Commitments” a while back) and an equally impressive 19! year old Czech musical prodigy Marketa Irglova. He’s a street performer pining for an old flame, she’s a young mom who wants little more from life than a chance to make music. What’s very cool about this movie is how good and heartfelt and believable the music they make is, and how well it fits the story that goes with it. Justly called a new kind of musical, it’s well worth your time.

Our favorite bookstore, Politics and Prose, just got better: many of the book readings and the subsequent Q&A sessions there can now be viewed online at “”, among them Robert Dallek (“Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power”), Fritz Stern (“Five Germanies I Have Known”), and Christopher Hitchens (“God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”).

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles Mann. The title might as well have added “Everything You Know Is Wrong.” You get a good sense of the book in an Atlantic Monthly article by Mann; I got interested after a glowing description by Teresa Nielsen Hayden (“Making Light”) last year, which you should read both for its own sake and for the comments by her anthropologist, sociologist, ecologist, and etceterologist readers.Mann says two main things in this book. First, there were many more people living in the Americas before Columbus than had been suspected. Second, they had civilizations that were much, much more advanced than had been suspected (by me, at least) — the largest cities on Earth, some of the healthiest people, civil engineering and scientific feats to rival the Old World’s. Check out particularly the stories about Tisquantum (a.k.a. Squanto of Thanksgiving memory), the stuff about khipu, a three (and, including color, four-)dimensional knot-language “like the coding systems used in modern-day computer language,” the story of maize (a prodigious feat of plant breeding), the possible real significance of the huge passenger pigeon flocks of the 1800s, and the bequest of the Haudenosaunee to the ideals America struggles to live up to.The archaeologists, linguists, and anthropologists Mann writes about — and Mann himself — are resurrecting the memory of a huge swath of mankind that was very nearly forgotten or at best given short shrift. This is quite simply the best book I’ve run across in the last couple of years — it’s that interesting, well written, and horizon expanding.

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