" /> I write: January 2008
Curmudgeonalia
I see I taste I write Links What?
January 17, 2008

Jefferson’s War

America’s First War on Terror – 1801 – 1805
Joseph Wheelan - ISBN – 9780786714049

This new book revisits The Pirate Coast (see my review of Nov. 2006). Of a sudden the Barbary Wars are being re-explored. I have always wondered about them, but “pirates” didn’t get me there. Unfortunately this one isn’t a lot better. There’s less minutiae, but still too much. Whatever happened to great editing?

He does observe that Jefferson felt it better to “dictate peace thru the expedient of war,” unlike the sniveling continentals who bribed their way into safety for their shipping. Strangely, the Brits, with the most powerful navy in the world, wouldn’t take on the smarmy, corrupt Muslim pirates, but the Americans whupped them rather decisively in a couple of years with half a dozen ships. Like most American wars, the reason it took 4 years is the ineptitude and incompetence of the first pair of naval commodores. Jefferson finally found a leader who would do what was necessary, after which it was done quickly.

Amongst the things I find most frustrating in both books is that the essence of the conflict is lost within the smothering trivia. Lord Horatio Nelson—formidable English commander and victor at Trafalgar—stated that Stephen Decatur, in his (casualty free) attack upon Tripoli, had accomplished the most daring raid of the era. Still the author provides but a page and a half on the battle before plunging into a lengthy dissertation on Decatur’s welcome home as a hero.

He drones endlessly about Eaton’s capture of Derna, including the number the shots fired, the cannon used, the deployment of troops, the response of the Mustafa, and . . . and letters to and from commanders, presidents, representatives, pashas, envoys, dilettantes . . . and most everyone. As well he discloses minute details about individual ransom costs, numbers of captives, detail about the captivity and slavery imposed, etc. “Tedious” fails to cover it. Eventually he describes the results and implications in a couple of pages.

To Wheelan’s credit he eventually discusses the ultimate benefit to the American fleet. Government finally determined that we could not survive without competent blue-water power, and the Barbary Wars honed the navy to an effective fighting force.

The U.S. navy demonstrated that you buy trouble at considerable cost when menacing America. We were different from continentals. Still are, most of the time. America hadn’t paid obeisance to English kings, and it certainly wouldn’t bow to penny-ante Islamic pashas who extorted tribute and filled their dungeons with “Christian dogs” for slaves and ransom. Further, facing down terror worked.

While things were never fully and truly settled, the Barbary pirates left us alone and Europe respected us. We should remind ourselves of that. While the continentals aren’t impressed this time around, the terrorists will be if we prevail, as we did 200 years ago.

Posted by respeto at 1:42 PM

January 12, 2008

In Praise of Prejudice

The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas
Theodore Dalrymple – ISBN - 9781594032028

“Americans are presently longing for high moral standards and the security they bestow, but our love affair with freedom and individualism gets in the way. We are unwilling or unable to see that such standards require a mentality that accepts and derives comfort from iron-clad rules that make no sense, and explanations like ‘just because.’”
Florence King

Right on . . . but explicative of many things which seem to “make no sense” is Dalrymple’s new treatise in which he delivers a brilliant, provocative tome-- a must read for everyone. Re-read and reflect, as well!

This manuscript is the epitome of reason and debate, though he leaves almost no room for the latter. He simply states his positions, demonstrates that they are true, and quietly defies anyone to logically refute them. He observes that discrimination was once a word associated with aestheticism, morality and pedagogy. The most important task of educators in times past was the quest to instill the ability to rationally discriminate. Now both discrimination and prejudice are pejorative terms: despicable, wicked and intolerable. Reason doesn’t enter the equation.

He uses the unstated logic of the hippies (something oxymoronic about that—maybe it’s just moronic) that since nothing from the past matters, and morality is individually decided, if it feels good, do it! He makes the case that this position was conceived in the 17th century by Descartes, nurtured for 200 years by the intelligentsia of Europe, enhanced (if unintentionally) by such luminaries as J.S. Mill, and later A.N. Whitehead, mid-wifed and delivered by the 60’s generation into our present, full blown Cartesian culture of radical individualism. More recently, these attitudes have been passed along, intentionally and illogically, by authors such as James Baldwin, and atheistic, scientific authoritarians like Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins, who often lace their prose with moral indignation and challenge the God--that would be the one they refuse to acknowledge--as capricious, arbitrary, unjust, bad-tempered and unreasonable.

“The popularity of the Cartesian method is not the consequence of a desire to remove metaphysical doubt and find certainty, but precisely the opposite: to cast doubt on everything, and thereby increase the scope of personal license by destroying in advance any philosophical basis for the limitation of our own appetites. . . . The radical skeptic, nowadays at least, is in search not so much of truth, as of liberty—that is to say, of liberty conceived of the largest field imaginable for the satisfaction of his whims.”

One of the great mistakes of contemporary social thought has been that the environment into which children are born, material & economic, is considered most important, while deprivation, moral squalor and emotional instability are attributed to material poverty alone. Indeed, if one is morally required to jettison nonsense from the past, he is then required to support the concept that nothing ought to be conveyed to one’s progeny. We thereby vest in children authority over their lives, and a child constantly catered to learns that life is to be ruled by his preferences and his prejudices which are in turn harmful to him and society.

He relates, anecdotally, having recently attended a comedy from the 50’s in which a middleclass male impregnated a working class female, whose father demanded justice. Justice/responsibility was accepted. He married the woman. The audience was consumed by laughter at the archaic suggestion that conception of a child created an obligation for the father, thus demonstrating that while we may rid society of a particular prejudice regarding a given question, it is impossible to have no prejudice.

It can be altered but never eliminated, so the relevant question is whether we are better off with the new than the old prejudice. No one seems to inquire any more, as motion/change is equated with progress. Indeed, the fact that prejudice is involved is usually denied.

Burke observed that the only thing necessary for evil triumph is for good men to do nothing. The idea was not that all men would become evil; rather, that the evil ones dominate the rest. Dalrymple interjects that Burke “might have added that evil would triumph if men ceased to believe in the distinction between good and evil,” then posits two parallel, opposing, syllogisms:
• All prejudice is wrong.
• The distinction between good and evil can be based only upon prejudice.
Therefore, distinguishing between good and evil is wrong.
• The distinction between good and evil is both inevitable and necessary for the exercise of virtue.
• The distinction between good and evil can be based only upon prejudice.
Therefore prejudice is necessary for the exercise of virtue.

Indeed . . . prejudice is necessary for the maintenance of elementary decency. It takes judgment to know which prejudice should be maintained and which abandoned. Prejudices, like friendships, should be kept in good repair; they are what give men character and hold them together. We cannot be without them.

At last he demonstrates how unguided, a-historic, radical individualism is paradoxical in that it begins as a search for total individualism yet ultimately defers to increased governmental power over individuals as it becomes the sole arbiter of what is acceptable and legal. Having eliminated history, family, church, social organizations, and culturally prescribed customs. there is no other authority to consult.

It isn’t reasonable, or even possible, to make everything up, daily, along the path of life. Radical individualism results in an omnipotent totalitarian government by eliminating logical and reasoned individual choice, which in turn determines the nature of culture.

Posted by respeto at 2:40 PM

January 7, 2008

The Mauling (sp-intentional) of America

This rant is precipitated by comments made in The World is Flat and several other such renderings I have more recently read.

Neil Postman once observed that Las Vegas is a metaphor of our national aspiration: a city devoted to entertainment: i.e. faux reality. It is, in essence, a prototypic American mall—on steroids! Like our modern shopping malls it is without significant statuary or public squares; public art is replaced by plastic plants arranged around contrived storefronts; artificial lighting is associated with “neat” electronic tricks. Everything is simulated. The occasional skylight admits a little sunshine from time to time.

Malls have been declared to be private places, with notable displacement of the public square where full freedom used to be exercised, right down to the nut on the soap box. It has turned us away from the authentic drama played out on city streets which are no longer the focus of a community. Instead, we have a 50-100 acre regional expanse “at the far end of the road.” There are even different types of malls catering to lifestyle, income, values, and décor – just as we have with neighborhoods of uniform homes in the same price range.

Commerce prevails over all other human values, thus diminishing the sense of citizenship, and one further senses a diminished sense of self-worth. No one really questions whether the loss of community is really a fair trade for the maximum in shopping values and options. Is citizenship more important then consumerism? One doubts it!

Carole Rifkind has observed cogently that consumption has replaced community as a means of identification, while William Kowinski commented that the mall is “the TV you walk around in.”

Cities smaller and less historic than New York and Chicago are disappearing. We end up with LA in varietal permutations. I grew up in a neighborhood where there were falling down houses rented to the poor, admixed with lower middle-class, middle class, and even relatively expensive homes.

Now there are subdivisions of near identical homes with prices varying little more than a few thousand dollars, separated from one another and from down town areas by miles of four-lane roads and freeways; and even the expensive ones are tacky, “kit homes”which remind of the Pete Seger song from half a century ago in which he was champed about Levittowns as “houses made of ticky-tacky all standing in a row.”

My move to Florida has been disappointing because there is a seriously diminished variety of all manner of things, associated with an over-arching vacuity. My prior promise to myself was that I’d “never live more than a few miles removed from oak leaf lettuce.” Here they’ve never heard of it, along with uncountable other kinds of produce . . . not to mention gourmet pasta, unusual types of meat and fish! . . . and class is spelled with a “K”.

Posted by respeto at 4:35 PM

1776

David McCullough – ISBN – 9780743226721

This masterful book is by McCullough. What more needs be said? It chronicles the year 1776, detailing the initiation of the American Revolution with his expected, colorfully accurate and riveting descriptions of the times, the people and the events.

He deals adroitly with the principals: Washington, Greene, Knox, etal, as well as the British commanders. The drama unfolds with descriptions of the combatants: farmers, schoolteachers, shoemakers, ne’er-do-wells, and the “Red Coats,” of course. The events are graphically depicted, from the (sort of) battle for Fort Ticonderoga and subsequent movement of the cannon over impossible terrain, thru the evacuation of New York, to the brilliant battle for Trenton--the paramount victory of that year.

Trevelyan, a British Statesman, later wrote of the small band of men and their leader (at Trenton): “It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world.” In the end, while support from the French and the Dutch played a part in the outcome, it was Washington and the army that won the war for American independence.

His descriptions of George Washington are inspiring, and make the case that the battle could not have been enjoined, forget won, without this most important man of the era: first, best, and justifiably worshipped patriot; General, first President, . . . and honorable gentleman! What he and his followers endured is all but unimaginable. Yet they did, and they prevailed. Because of that we have a country!

Writes McCullough: “The Continental Army was the key to victory, and it was Washington who held the army together and gave it ‘spirit’ through the most desperate times. . . . Washington never forgot what was at stake, and he never gave up.”

I was especially struck by report of the handling of Lord Howe, commander of British forces. He had been dispatched by King George III to--and only to--grant pardons. Washington’s retorted that he had come to the wrong place. He had no faith in any peace overtures made by the British. And there is this memorable quote of July 2nd, 1776: “The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army.” Ahoy there unattached secularists and members of the ACLU, note and ponder that “under God” part!

The conundrum for the British is marvelously elaborated, with the factions detailed and explained: those who supported a separate peace and those who favored humiliating the Americans by defeating them. Recall that Ben Franklin wanted to be a part of the empire; he did not, initially, favor independence.

Even then, as with the world in modern times, the English were struck by the affluence of the colonies, which achievement they attributed to America’s parasitic existence at the expense of Great Britain. The old zero sum game has quite a lineage!

Fellow citizens, I encourage you to reflect upon that revolutionary time, inasmuch as it is unapparent for just how long we will have this wonderful country if we do not--and soon--seriously consider our present situation, its gravity, and our approach to it. As was WWII, this is another war for survival . . . and the independence we claim to value.

Posted by respeto at 3:08 PM

January 3, 2008

Ever Wonder Why?

And Other Controversial Essays
Thomas Sowell – ISBN – 9780817947521

As one would suspect, this compendium of essays is luminous, insightful and damaging to those who do not consider the effects (often predictable) of societal policies regarding legal, social, racial, educational and economic issues reflected in the culture war now in progress in the U.S. It is a Philippic, of sorts, but Sowell does have the soul of Demosthenes.

For those unfamiliar with this scholar I encourage you to introduce yourself; for those already initiated you will have read some of these observations before. Both groups, however, will find this a brisk and challenging read. Thinking is required! I thought I’d found my new “bathroom read,” but I was mistaken. I read it thru from beginning to end with regret: at 460 I ran out of pages.

As before, I believe the best way to represent this kind of anthology is listing the better quotes within:

• The welfare state is not really about the welfare of the masses. It’s about the egos of the elites.
• California has long had more than its share of busybodies with a vision of the world in which it is necessary for them to force other people to do Good Things . . . a very flattering vision which they are unlikely to give up for anything so mundane as facts or logic.
• Good Things have costs, often costs all out of proportion to whatever good they might do. But notions like trade-offs and diminishing returns seldom deter zealots, whose own egos are served by their zealotry in imposing their vision, however costly or counterproductive it may be for others.
• The vision of zealots is not just a vision of the world. It is a vision of themselves as special people in that world. (You’ll see the term zealot used frequently . . . and justifiably!)
• Someone once defined a social problem as a situation in which the real world differs from the theories of intellectuals. . . . the real world is wrong and needs to change.
• The U.S. has always been diverse [but] . . . it has always been understood by all that they came here to become Americans—not to remain foreign. . . . Today our “citizen of the world types” [so] all they can to keep foreigners foreign and domestic minorities riled up over grievances, past and present, real and imaginary.
• The free market is a daily assault on the vision of the anointed. Just think of all those millions of people out there buying whatever they want, whether or not the anointed think it is good for them. . . . People who decry the fact that businesses are in business “just to make money” [ignore the fact that] you make money by doing what other people want, not what you want.
• [Just imagine] people earning whatever incomes they get from producing goods or services for other people, with the anointed cut out of the loop, standing on the sidelines in helpless frustration, unable to impose their particular vision of “social justice.”
• Instead of trying to propagandize children to hug trees and recycle garbage, our schools would be put to better use teaching them how to analyze and test what is said by people who advocate tree hugging and recycling.
• Guns are completely inappropriate for the kind of sheep like people the anointed envision, or the orderly, prepackaged world in which they are to live. When you are in mortal danger you are supposed to dial 911, so that the police can arrive on the scene sometime later, identify your body and file reports in triplicate.
• In much of the liberal media, large-scale confrontations between police and people who are breaking the law are usually reported in one of two ways. Either the police “used excessive force” or they “let the situation get out of hand.” Any enforcement sufficient to prevent the situation from getting out of hand will be called “excessive,” and if the police arrive in large enough numbers to squelch disorder without having to use any force at all, then sending in so many cops will be called “over reacting.”
• Whether the one sided reporting of the war in Vietnam was a factor in defeat, there used to be a controversy, but in recent years high officials in the Communist government have themselves admitted they lost the war on the battlefields but won it in the U.S. media and on the streets of America, where political pressures from the anti-war movement threw away the victory for which thousands of American lives had been sacrificed.
• The realities of life force most of us to grow up, whether we want to or not. But for people unprotected from realities by being born rich, or by having lifetime tenure as academics or federal judges, maturity is optional. (One wishes he had added movie and pop stars who rake in zillions for little effort and simultaneously harbor both guilt and a sense of superiority; and do so within the free-market environment which permits this while they fail to understand, and visit it with limitless vitriol.)
• They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But maybe the old dog already knows about tricks that only seem new to the young—and doesn’t think much of those tricks.

Give or take a couple of quotes you are up to about page 50 !!

Posted by respeto at 1:46 PM