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October 29, 2008

Six Frigates

The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy
Ian W. Toll – ISBN 9780393330328

A wonderful book (presuming you’re interested in Naval History); sweeping in scope, and sufficiently comprehensive for the most discriminating professional, yet quite readable for those of us who dislike textbooks.

There was a rather non-professional navy during the American Revolution, including not a few contractually permitted raiders (better recognized as pirates) who were licensed to stalk British ships. The original six frigates were built in response to American harassment by the Barbary pirates. American shipping had been secure as a part of the British Empire, but that protection was withdrawn (with some glee, by the British) after independence.

Toll outlines the political machinations involved in the decision to build a navy There were those against (principally the Cavaliers in the South) and those in favor (the merchants of the North.) Jefferson was as adamant about not having a navy, as he was obstinate in his disapproval of a standing army. Washington, Adams and Hamilton eventually won over their adversaries as more and more piracy and kidnapping of American crews drove them to the obvious conclusion.

Of the planned six frigates only four were originally built. They were of unique native design. They were particularly effective, being larger than most warships then in existence, and could overpower any ship except the massive British battleships. Indeed, it could give them a pretty good run inasmuch as the American design allowed them to out maneuver the opponent. Structurally, they were fashioned of American live oak which made them sturdier and more durable. The main members were cut using the natural shape of the trees, which presented a monumental problem: these were huge trees in remote places, and whole trunk and branch sections had to be recovered and delivered to the coastal shipyards.

While the primary arguments offered were for protection there was also a certain amount of ego involved. Adams wanted the world to recognize that “we are not a degraded people, humiliated under a colonial spirit of fear and a sense of inferiority, fitted to be the miserable instruments of foreign influence, and regardless of national honor, character, and interest.” This proved particularly cogent in the later War of 1812.

There is a good deal of history/biography involved herein, in explaining the personalities of the principal “founding fathers” and their peculiarities, all of which fed into the political resolution of the various problems attendant approval and construction of these vessels. The history and biography of some of America’s early combat captains are included as well. They performed heroically in both of these early wars. Toll covers these conflicts in some detail. All told, the peripheral history explains the 500 pages of the book.

“What is remembered and cherished about the War of 1812, above all, was the fact that America’s tiny fleet had shocked and humbled the mightiest navy the world had ever known. Decatur, Hull, Bainbridge, Lawrence, Perry and Macdonnough were among the most exalted heroes of 19th century America . . . Towns, cities and counties were named for them. . . . Staffordshire [decorated] ceramic pitchers and plates with scenes of American naval victories . . . Sailors kept fragments of wood said to have come from one of the navy’s victorious ships, as if they were relics of the true cross.” Etcetera!

And it must be emphasized that then, as now, the security of the nation depends mightily upon the dedication and prowess of the Navy. Then, it was primarily to protect shipping against piracy; now to project power and protect against attack, though it certainly discourages piracy, which remains a problem in certain parts of the world.

Overall a good read.

Posted by respeto at 3:40 PM

Hell Hath No Fury

True Stories of Women at War from Antiquity to Iraq
Rosalind Miles and Robin Cross – ISBN 9780307346377

Ostensibly this book provides biographies of the most important “Battle Axes” in world history. Sounds like it’d be great fun. Unfortunately it wasn’t. It is poorly written, and is essentially synoptic of other writings, most of them of little consequence . . . rather like the Biography Channel using People Magazine as a source for their presentations. Indeed, a disproportionate number of the women included are gleaned from one other source, which original may or may not be better than is this book.

It also includes such entries as “Rosie the Riveter,” who wasn’t a warrior at all, and existed only as a fictional representative of women working in war time factories, and Helen Kirkpatrick and Christiane Amanpour were both war correspondents, and Tokyo Rose broadcast to American troops in the Pacific during WW II, etc.

I got bored and skimmed the last half of the first half, and flipped thru the remainder, reading at random.

Save your money, and spend your time reading something--anything--else.

Posted by respeto at 3:31 PM

October 18, 2008

For the Glory of God

How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts and the End of Slavery
Rodney Stark - ISBN – 9780691119502

Stark is well qualified as a sociologist (of religion) to discuss this subject, and this text is wonderfully complete, though his scientific style and turgid prose takes a little getting used to. (A collaborator might have been helpful.) Notwithstanding, it is worth the time . . . and it will take time, because one can only read 20-30 pages at a sitting, and the book weighs in at 375 pages (of 10 point TNR script with not a lot of white space for margins)

He is unforgiving of historians and scientists as a group, noting that they--habitually and by discipline--are reluctant to accept, let alone discuss how religion is responsible for anything good. They teach that Newton was much too sophisticated to believe in God, yet he was a devout Christian and the quintessential student of God’s handiwork. Enlightened, they say, are far above superstition and thus couldn’t possibly be religious. No one intelligent could be. Nonsense!

He reviews the history of religion(s), amplifying how people, acting “for the glory of God” have been responsible for their cultures from time long past, and that monotheism has set the course for modernity for Judeo-Christianity, but not for Islam. He explains that Islam is taught to accept the world is as it is and live in it under the dictates of an irrational, unpredictable, ruthless Allah. Contrariwise, Judeo-Christianity posits God as rational, responsive, dependable and predictable. His world is thus understandable, by applying reason, study and science. It awaits only human comprehension. Christianity developed science because there was belief that it could be done. In so doing birthed the university as an offshoot of the cathedral schools, peopled by speculative thinkers. Christian thinkers gained fame thru innovation, while other cultures teach only received knowledge—often adding to it in non-scientific ways.

While the ancient Greeks,and others, contributed mightily to the store of knowledge, they never created science. Likewise with the Chinese, Indians, Romans, and Muslims--the religion of each is explained in turn. All had highly developed alchemy, yet never developed chemistry as did Christian Europe; similarly so with astrology’s graduation to astronomy. “Christian theology was essential for the rise of science in the West, just as surely as non-Christian theologies stifled the scientific quest everywhere else.” Science is not an extension of classical learning. Rather, it is an outgrowth of Christian attitudes including the intelligent quest for God’s immutable principles.

Contrary to received wisdom Christianity didn’t “plunge” Europe into an era of ignorance. So much technical progress took place from the 6th century forward, that by 13th century European technology surpassed anything anywhere in the world. (It appears the “dark ages” weren’t so dark after all.) This was the result of speculative and innovative progress of quizzical and querulous minds. It is taught that a “scientific revolution” was possible due primarily to a weakening of Christian control, andthat this limitation resulted in the recovery of classical learning. This is as false as those certainties concerning Columbus and his courage in challenging the flat earth. It's all bunkum.

The Renaissance and the flowering of European science in the 1500’s was a direct consequence of the theology of the age, but it also led to witch-hunting by many otherwise sober people (who were not part of the middle-ages, but rather of the “Enlightenment.”) Similarly this concept of God resulted in the Christian denunciation of slavery as an abomination. Interestingly, some of the most notorious of the witch burners were vigorous participants in the abolition movements. It was the Christian Scholastics--not the Greeks, Romans, Muslims or Chinese--who based their studies upon science.

He does explore in detail the persisting arguments over Darwin’s hypothesis, quoting amongst others Richard Dawkins. He eviscerates the arguments against intelligent design as he observes that Dawkins “knows the many serious problems that beset purely materialistic evolutionary theory, but asserts that no one except true believers in evolution can be allowed into the discussion, [and that these discussions must] be held in secret.” As well, he emphasizes out that a majority of modern scientists in all disciplines consider themselves religious.

We all tend to refer to the Spanish inquisition and witch trials. In fact, Spain was far more quiescent than much of the rest of Europe, since it had a much stronger government than anywhere else, and governments generally suppressed these activities, unlike more remote villages in what is now France and Germany. Moderns, he notes with some amusement, tend to blame blind fanaticism of these ancient prosecutors for their failure to see that they were manufacturing accusations. Missing is their awareness of current prosecutors “rolling up” cases with much the same vigor (the Duke Lacrosse team comes to mind.)

Interestingly, witch-hunts did not occur in Islamic cultures, in part because magic is imbedded in Islam, and was not a threat to Islamic power structures.

Slavery has been an institution since the advent of civilization. Indeed is universal inasmuch as it is a function of human productivity. It is not intrinsic to more sophisticated cultures. The concept of owning someone to produce for you ain’t so bad . . . unless you’re the “ownee.” Stark first elaborates on the history of slavery, then delves into the morality, and the critical relevance of Christianity to the abolition of slavery. He observes that slavery was a Muslim business centuries before Europeans discovered the New World, and debunks the prevailing attitude that serfdom and slavery were much the same thing. Abolition, he emphasizes, is not inherent in Christian scripture, but was the only possible conclusion--ultimately reached under favorable circumstances, thru a long and complex series of political crises leading ultimately to the civil war in the U.S.

One could go on indefinitely, but this should be enough to interest (or disinterest) y’all.

Consider it. It’s worth the time to labor through it.

Posted by respeto at 1:52 PM

October 15, 2008

Little Heathens

Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm during the Great Depression
Mildred Armstrong Kalish – ISBN 9780553384426

It does not do this superb memoir justice to say it is good. It is a veryveryvery good book; indeed one of the best you will read anytime soon (!) . . . beautifully crafted, clean and joyful in its descriptions of growing up on a self-sustaining farm in middle America during the depression (as the title indicates.)

Kalish composed this narrative primarily for her family--expressly for her grandchildren--but it is a wonderfully readable and entertaining chronicle of the pleasures of life, even during times of gritty hardship. It emphasizes the old epigram: “there is little difference between people, but that little difference makes a big difference; the little difference is attitude, the big difference is whether it is good or bad.”

She observes that: “I want my own family to be aware of the foods, the ingenuity, the knowledge, the skills and above all, the everlasting work that was required to survive when resources and supplies were limited. But most of all I want them to enjoy the kinship of souls that is created when everyone gathers in the kitchen to prepare a meal together. Although cooking today is vastly easier, there is still nothing like putting a good meal on the table to make people feel they have done something meaningful.”

Her family was—as were most at the time—resolutely opposed to displaying emotions. She tells us that when her brother came home from WW II a wounded hero, her grandfather quickly put his hand on “Jack’s” shoulder, but as quickly withdrew it, saying softly, “I’m glad you’re back. I never thought I’d ever see you again.” His eyes were misty but that was it. Emotions were to be kept private.

The family was also blessed with the usual compliment of “peculiar” people. Aunt Agnes, for instance, spent her time embroidering, and reading the Bible, and her sole link with the outside world was her sister. She was “half a bubble off plumb,” but everyone loved her. Any way, another Old Maid (which was the popular sobriquet of the day) once observed that she had no need for a man, inasmuch as she already had a dog that growled, a chimney that smoked, a parrot that swore and a cat that stayed out all night. “Why would I need a husband?”

By contrast, Aunt Belle was “tiny and energetic as a hummingbird, chirpy and happy as a wren [with a] wry sense of humor and a sharp wit.” She was popular with the kids who always “anticipated an evening spent [with her] eating candy and popcorn, telling riddles and singing hymns,” an unimaginable situation by anyone today.

Growing up in an environment where children were, of necessity, very responsible, they learned a lot from adults, who seldom taught intentionally; they mentioned and discussed things as they were, in context, and that was the lesson. Be it religion or sex, discussions were scanty or non-extant. Just follow the leader, sort of. And being sick could be, and often was, life-threatening. Challenging an adult was likewise treacherous.

She discusses an enormous variety of things: work (most of the time) to leisure activities, from gardening to milking and haying, gathering nuts and heavenly Morels to cooking (on which subject she offers quite numerous tips and tantalizing recipes as well as comments about how commercial food isn’t quite what she grew up on), literature to religion (and tent revival meetings), dangerous and cold winters to hot Iowa summers (in homes without central heat or air conditioning and horse-drawn snow plows), doing the weekly wash (by hand, without a machine, and the smells of fresh air, sun-dried clothing) to the daily trips to the outhouse.

On the last she reports a rib-splitting anecdote from Halloween, long years ago. The town curmudgeon, whose outhouse was upended the year before, observed to all that he was spending the night in his outhouse with his shotgun at the ready. The same pranksters took him at his word and rushed the structure from the rear, tipping it on to the door, thus trapping the old man inside until his morning rescue. The following year he repeated the threat. This time, however, the result was different: “How could they have known that the night before, the canny (pardon the pun) old guy had moved his outhouse three feet forward, so that when they rushed it, they would all drop into the smelly pit before they could accomplish their dirty deed?” The “old guy” was sitting in a tree nearby, the better to enjoy the show.

Of course there is much more, some of it amusing, all of it interesting, as a delightful chronicle of a life well lived, in a time long past, in a different country, with occurrences never to be repeated. And not unlike Bill Bryson’s memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a read to be savored . . . and likely reread sometime soon . . . by those of us who can actually remember similar experiences.

The young of today—and for that matter, their parents--simply cannot understand the simple joy of that kind of youth, what with their mall meetings, computer and arcade games, “face-booking” and text messaging. I, for one, don’t envy them a bit. Indeed I feel sorry for them.

Posted by respeto at 2:41 PM

October 11, 2008

The Case Against Barack Obama

The Unlikely Rise and Unexamined Agenda of the Media’s Favorite Candidate
David Freddoso – ISBN – 9781596985667

If you read much, you’ve likely read at least one review of this book, excluding the mainstream media of course, so I shall be brief.

This is an extremely well researched book with pages and pages of end-notes so that you can check the references yourself. I have (done some) and they are unalterably accurate.

The author also gives a timeline of all of Obama’s activities, contributions and achievements . . . which is a rather short list if you exclude all of the bills his Illinois Senate mentor “let him” present as his (Barack’s) own during his last year in the state senate, thus to heavily pad his resume.

It is both a fascinating and frightening book. “The One” has done almost nothing outside of fostering his own career in politics, and much of that, while not specifically illegal is definitively crooked.

Obama’s several books are analyzed critically, and Freddoso makes pointed references to and analysis of this warped man, noting his exclusively left-wing education and mentors--not a few of them communists--and his immersion in the corrupt politics of Chicago. The author emphasizes that during the recent campaign Obama is refuting everything in his descriptions of himself in his books, “all the better, my pretty,” (my quote from the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz.)

Many of you have—I have—read these books. If read critically, which is assisted by Freddoso’s commentary, understanding this complex man is not so difficult. Whether or not you’ve read Obama’s books, you simply must read Freddoso’s before the election. It’ll surely give you cause for pause, and being informed is, on this occasion, more important than any election in my lifetime.

Do it!

Posted by respeto at 1:45 PM