Seceding from the Nation

Eric Foner is a major historian of the mid-19th century USA and a regular contributor to The Nation magazine.  In a recent issue, he reviewed two books about politics in the South during and after the Civil War, Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning and Victoria Bynum’s The Long Shadow of the Civil War.  This paragraph of Foner’s got me thinking:

McCurry begins by stating what should be obvious but is frequently denied, that the Confederacy was something decidedly odd in the nineteenth century: “an independent proslavery nation.” The Confederate and state constitutions made clear that protecting slavery was their raison d’être. Abandoning euphemisms like “other persons” by which the US Constitution referred to slaves without directly acknowledging their existence, Confederates forthrightly named the institution, erected protections around it and explicitly limited citizenship to white persons. McCurry implicitly pokes holes in other explanations for Southern secession, such as opposition to Republican economic policies like the tariff or fear for the future of personal freedom under a Lincoln administration. Georgia, she notes, passed a law in 1861 that made continuing loyalty to the Union a capital offense, hardly the action of a government concerned about individual liberty or the rights of minorities.

I can certainly understand Foner’s exasperation with neo-Confederates who see the Old South as a proud symbol of liberty and elide the role of slavery in the Civil War.  In the legal documents he cites, the Confederate States of America advertised its cause as the defense of slavery.  In prominent speeches delivered at the outbreak of the war, such southern leaders as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and Confederate President Jefferson Davis said openly that the cause which justified secession was the threat that the newly ascendant Republican Party would free blacks from slavery.  While Stephens and Davis each spent a great deal of time after the war trying to explain his earlier remarks away and argue that he had been motivated by concern for something other than the maintenance of human bondage, it is hardly unreasonable to attach greater weight to the contemporary documents and to say that in the Civil War, the South fought to defend slavery. 

What is less reasonable is to leave it at that, with the implication that the North fought to abolish slavery.  The evidence would suggest that when the United States armed forces were sent to quash secession, the men who sent them had little interest in emancipating anyone.  Emancipation came later, propelled by the exigencies of war.  As Davis and Stephens would shift their public statements from prewar calls to defend slavery to postwar invocations of the rights of the states, so too did the leaders of the North change their stands very substantially as the war went on.  The most obvious example may be the contrast between Abraham Lincoln’s two Inaugural Addresses.  Lincoln delivered his First Inaugural Address in March of 1861, when the war had not yet broken out.  The Second Inaugural Address was delivered in March of 1865, a few weeks before the end of the war.  Lincoln spends much of the First Inaugural Address vowing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and leave slavery alone in all the states where it was a legal institution.  In the Second Inaugural Address, he looks back on the war as a struggle to emancipate the slaves and declares that it would only be just were God to decree that the war should “continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” 

In the First Inaugural, Lincoln capitulates to every demand the South could possibly make in regard to slavery.  Time and again, of course, Lincoln would declare his belief that people whose ancestors came from Africa could not live among whites except in conditions of subjugation, and he rarely missed a chance to distance himself from Abolitionists.   These facts do not mean that the South was not fighting to keep blacks enslaved.   Seeing that the Republicans, a party which did include a sizeable antislavery bloc, could elect as president a candidate who did not receive a single vote in the ten states south and west of Virginia, slaveholders might well have drawn the conclusion that their grip on the national government was permanently broken and that some future president would lead the push for abolition.  While Lincoln himself might not in 1861 have had the inclination to take that task on, proslavery southerners may well have thought that it would have been unwise to wait for the crisis they feared.

What the First Inaugural does show, however, is that whatever the South may have been fighting for, the North was not at the outset of the war fighting against slavery.  Why did the North fight to keep the South in the Union?  Why for that matter did so many Northerners vote for Lincoln when it should have been clear that the election of a purely regional candidate would trigger secession?  I suspect Foner’s dismissal, in the paragraph above, of the tariff as a cause for the war applies only to the motivations of the South.  The South opposed a protective tariff because it wanted equal access to the products of industry in the North and in England.  Indeed, the South wanted Northerners to bid competitively with English interests for Southern cotton.  Since the chief goal of US policy since 1776 had been to get the British out of North America, the idea that the southern states of the USA would form an economic relationship with English industry that might very well lead to their absorption into the British Empire could hardly be expected to meet with general approval in the rest of the country.   

The Second Inaugural is among the most widely read of all Lincoln’s writings, certainly the most widely read of his state papers.  That is no surprise.  Not only is it an extraordinary specimen of eloquence, but it also flatters Americans’ national self-esteem.   The Second Inaugural caters to Americans who want to look at the Civil War and see a moral awakening to the evils of human bondage and to the possibility that black and white might live together in equality.  Beyond that; it also allows us to cast that moral awakening as a drama in which our enlightened twenty-first century selves have the leading role.  The Civil War, Lincoln invites us to believe, was fought so that later generations of Americans could be untainted by the guilt of slavery.  In other words, the dead had to die, so that we could look down on them.

If, instead of reading the Second Inaugural and congratulating ourselves on our superiority to our ancestors, we Americans read the First Inaugural and put the Civil War in the context of international Realpolitik, we might shed some of our national narcissism and be warier next time some group of con artists try to sell us another war.  We wouldn’t necessarily be any less proud of our country- opposing the British Empire was a mighty project in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it isn’t every country that would have the patience to stick with such a project until the UK’s prime minister openly declares his country to be the USA’s junior partner in world affairs.  But we might learn to express pride in our country without pretending that the country itself has some divine commission to institute a world order based on pure justice.

The Political Stupidity Index; or, What separates the USA from the world to its south

Some US presidents not powered by petroleum

The July issue of Counterpunch just showed up in my mailbox; I suppose I could have read it weeks ago if I subscribed to the email version rather than the paper-and-ink one.  If I did that, however, I wouldn’t be able to leave old copies in laundromats and doctor’s offices and wonder who is getting a shock from them. 

There are three pieces remembering the late and much lamented Ben Sonnenberg, founder of the (alas, equally late and much lamented) literary quarterly Grand Street and a longtime eminence of the American Left.  I want Alexander Cockburn and Jo Ann Wypijewski to write my obituary.  As they went on about Sonnenberg’s historical greatness, profound learning, unfailing humility, inexhaustible compassion, and cheerful lovable-ness, I started to wonder why he hadn’t risen from the tomb on the third day.  Still, they do show that Sonnenberg devoted his life to celebrating and advancing the achievements of the human intellect, and that he was fearless in bringing reason to bear when entrenched interests intimidated others into accepting the official story.  

Two muckraking pieces tackle official stories which claim that the US government protects its citizens from menaces approaching the country from the south.  Jeffrey Saint Clair’s “How BP and the Obama Administration Have Been Joined at the Hip” tells how Mr O has overseen “a profound bureaucratic lethargy that ceded almost almost absolute control over the response to the spill to BP.”  While he might have invoked powers under the 1968 National Contingency plan and “seized control of both the well and the cleanup operations,” leaving BP’s officers with nothing to do but “sign checks for billions of dollars,” Mr O in fact sidelined all advisors who showed any sign of independence from the oil giant, instead relying on former lobbyists for and executives of BP.  The administration did little to nothing to contain the damage the leak would do to the Gulf coast, its wildlife and fisheries, but a great deal to help BP contain the damage to its public relations.  Most of Saint Clair’s facts are also reported in this Rolling Stone piece.   

Frank Bardacke’s “Why the Border Can Never Be ‘Secured'” introduces the phrase “the Political Stupidity Index,” which Bardacke defines as “the difference between the words politicians say and the way we actually live.”  Bardacke argues that the national debate about immigration registers a remarkably high level of this sort of stupidity, taking it to a level where “the words at the top have nothing to do with life at the bottom.”  “Despite what may be said in the public debate, people know there is no way to stop Mexicans coming to the USA, as long as Mexico remains poor and the USA relatively rich,” writes Bardacke.  More enforcement at the border only means more corruption among border patrol agents and more power for criminal enterprises that have set out “to make border crossing a big, corporate business.”  Amnesty for undocumented workers, whether marketed under the label “a path to citizenship” or under some other brand name, will only increase the rate of illegal immigration, as the upsurge in immigration after 1986 legalization definitively proved.  Guest-worker programs are “a bad idea all around,” as the experience of the Bracero Program showed.  By the mid 1960s, the poor working conditions to which braceros were subjected had raised the ire of liberals who objected to the program because it was a form of indentured servitude, while conservatives were alarmed by number of braceros who left their places of indenture to blend into the general population of the USA. 

I’m not at all sure Bardacke is right that the border cannot be “secured.”  Israel has certainly shown that walls can keep highly motivated people from crossing borders, and enforcement of citizenship requirements at points of employment need not be any more difficult than enforcement of laws  that require employees to be at least a particular age or paid at least a particular wage.  In order to implement those measures, the US government would have to confront the people who profit from the current system.  Considering the absurd timidity our current government has shown in its dealings with BP, it is rather difficult to imagine a future government that would be prepared to take on all the interests that benefit from keeping US wages from rising too far above the Mexican average.  Difficult though it may be, it is hardly impossible that such a thing might happen, and therefore unjustified to say that “the border can never be ‘secured’.” 

Whether it should be secured is of course another question.  If a government ever does come to power in the USA that has the backbone to stand up to the low-wage lobby, that government would likely be the result of a profound change in the country’s whole political culture.  If that change ever does come about, it might reveal more attractive possibilities for the US-Mexican economic relationship than fortifying the border and adding a new layer of policing in employment.  Maybe if working people get hold of real political power they will find ways to work together to develop the US and Mexico in tandem, rather than submitting to policies that exacerbate economic inequality and hollow out industry on both sides of the border.

Why I Post Under a Pseudonym

Under a false name

Lately I’ve been leafing through the Penguin Classics version of Søren Kierkegaard’s Papers and Journals.  One of the major themes is his relationship to the pseudonyms under which he wrote.  For example, on page 204 we find this passage, dated 9 February 1846:

Up to now I’ve been of service by helping the pseudonyms to become authors.  What if I decided from now on to do in the form of criticism what little writing I can allow myself?  I’d then commit what I have to say to reviews in which my ideas developed out of some book or other, so that they could also be found in the book.  At least I’d escape being an author. 

I suppose my use of the pseudonym “Acilius,” together with the preponderance of “Periodicals Notes” and Quick Links here, is among other things a strategy to avoid becoming an author.  But that isn’t the whole story.  Returning to Kierkegaard, here is a passage from later in 1846, found on page 225 of the book:

The idea I expressed in my life to support the pseudonymous writings was in total consistency with them.  If, with such an enormous productivity, I had led a secluded, hidden life, seldom appearing in public and then with a serious mien as befits a thinker, a professor face, heaven help me!  All that crawls of silly girls, young students, and the like would have discovered that I was profound.  That would have been hugely inconsistent with my work.  But what care fools about consistency- and how many wise men are there in each generation? 

When I first read this bit two or three weeks ago, I had just been thinking about my reasons for blogging under a pseudonym.  Coming upon it helped me formulate three specific reasons.

First, I teach at a college.  Many of my students look me up on Google.  If I blogged under my real name, they would immediately find this site.  I already catch them spouting opinions which they take to be mine in an attempt to make points.  If I were to make hundreds of posts in which I give my opinions about virtually every possible subject so easy for them to find, I could expect to encounter that sort of thing every day. 

Second, I often tell little stories about people I know.  Since I use a pseudonym and do not identify these people, the reader cannot be expected to know who they are.  Even readers who know me and recognize the characters may find something of the detachment of fiction in a story published under a pseudonym.  If I were to use my real name, however, I would have an obligation to give the others a right to rebut what I have written about them. 

Third, I am not the sole author of this site.  Others post here, still others comment here.  Some of these are people who are connected to me in some identifiable way (for example, my wife) and who may occasionally make remarks here that they would not want to share with everyone in the world.  If I obscure my identity by using a pseudonym, those others may be able to preserve some measure of privacy.

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain rereleases two early albums

The re-released

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain will soon be making its entire back catalog available for purchase in the form of mp3 downloads; despite this, they have reissued two of their early albums as CDs, Pluck (1997) and Hearts of Oak (1989.)  A copy of each came to our house came a couple of weeks ago.  Mrs Acilius and I have been listening to them more or less continuously ever since.   

Hearts of Oak features eleven originals and four covers. Pluck features twelve covers and four originals.  Two cuts from Hearts of Oak (“The World’s Number One Scat Singer” and “Western Lands”)  and seven from Pluck (“Try Hard,” “Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Completely Broken Hearted,” “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” “Devil’s Galop,” “In a Monastery Garden,” and “I Think You’re Neat”) were among the eighteen tracks on the 2006 compilation album Top Notch.  The band no longer offers Top Notch for sale on their website.  I don’t know whether this means that they plan to make all of the tracks on it available in their original contexts by rereleasing 1994’s  A Fistful of Ukuleles  and 2000’s Anarchy in the Ukulele as CDs, or if those numbers will only be on the market as mp3s.  I hope for the former; not only are the individual tracks worth having, but they flow into each other to make terrific sets.   

Hearts of Oak is structured as an overture and two movements.  The overture is “Chord Trick,” an abridgement of Henry Purcell’s 1695 Funeral March for Queen Mary arranged for electric ukulele; the result sounds vaguely like 80s Progressive Metal.  The set is 21 years old; while several other cuts are recognizably artifacts of the period, this opening number is the only one that has aged badly.  The flat electronic sound captures none of the urgency that builds so insistently through the original.  An attempt to render the Funeral March for Queen Mary in the style of Queensryche may be  typical of the UOGB’s eclecticism, but this performance is by far the weakest on the disc.  

The next seven tracks represent what I call the set’s first movement, a series of vocals in various genres.  “Just a Game” is as much part of 1989 as is “Chord Trick,” but evokes the bubblegum pop of the period far more successfully than “Chord Trick” evokes the metal.  “Whatever It Takes” led Mrs Acilius to exclaim that Kitty Lux has the perfect voice for hillbilly music; as the missus is a card-carrying hillbilly herself, this was high praise.  Indeed, Kitty Lux is the undoubted star of the band in these two albums.  I can’t help but think it’s a bit of a shame that she’s taken a lower profile in recent years.  On “There Was a Man,” Kitty sings about a man who needed shoes and was so excited when she gave him hers that he wore them out dancing for joy.  When I first heard this folk-inspired number my main response was to wonder what it might have sounded like if it had been written in Spanish.  It’s grown on me with subsequent listenings, but it’s not for those with a low tolerance for the twee. 

The liner notes quote the Guardian hailing the fifth track, “Anything is Beautiful Which…,” as the moment when the ukulele “at last found its avant-garde.”  The reviewer probably said that because of the lyrics, which consist of Kitty’s electronically distorted voice making little references to various nineteenth-century theories of aesthetics.  If you aren’t up on these theories, don’t worry- the words are no more distracting than the nonsense lyrics of most pop songs, and the rhythm is powerful enough to get me, the missus, and both of our dogs up and dancing every time we play the disc.  If you are up on aesthetic theory, the song is actually pretty funny, but you’ll have to take my word for that.  Even funnier are the lyrics to “The World’s Number One Scat Singer,” which is George’s one turn as vocalist on this album.  The song, which  would appear on Top Notch as “The World’s Greatest Scat Singer,” actually does include some first-rate scatting, as well as lines that can get a laugh from any audience.  “Easter Sunday,” a cover of Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler’s “Ostersonntag 1935,” is dark and dissonant, as one would expect from a Brecht/ Eisler lied.  Though it is an arrangement of a song that was already 54 years old by the time the disc was first released, it is much closer to being avant-garde than is “Anything is Beautiful Which…”  The speaker’s anxiety about an upcoming “Holocaust/ that will destroy this island, and these people,/ and the continent of Europe” calls for a great deal of dissonance, and the players execute the song brilliantly.  That fearful song is the perfect lead-in for the title track.  “Hearts of Oak” is short and arresting, a simple chord progression backing lyrics that express complex ideas about human connectedness.  Following “Easter Sunday,” a song with lines like “Isolation and communion are written in hearts of oak” prompts deep thoughts about what it means to live a peaceful life as a human being among human beings.     

With that, we move on to the third movement, seven instrumental tracks.  To keep the pairing of “Easter Sunday” and “Hearts of Oak” from taking the listener too deep into intellectualism to enjoy the music, this starts with a sort of Texas two-step number, “Western Lands.”   I don’t actually know the Texas two-step, but Mrs Acilius and I have devised a little dance for this one where I do a quasi-foxtrot and she dances with her shoulders while seated.  “Nevada” is a quiet, steady number that might have sounded somber immediately after “Easter Sunday” and “Hearts of Oak”; with “Western Lands” lightening the mood in between, it’s no more downbeat than is a spaghetti western.  The pace slows down even more for an arrangement of Rentaro Taki’s koto classic “The Moon over the Ruined Castle.”  I used to live next to a professional koto player; she had a low tolerance for the ukulele.  This performance is impressive enough that I might be tempted to play it for her, if she and I were still in contact.  If anything could raise her opinion of the ukulele, this would be it.

After those two slow pieces, the pace picks up again with “Formica Top,”  a Memphis Soul number that would have made Booker T and the MGs proud.  Then comes an equally fast-paced novelty tune, “Minimal Rag.”  “Minimal Rag” is the one Mrs Acilius wants me to learn.  “Karaoke Corral” is another Western-swing themed fast dance. 

The set closes with “The Con Man’s Chord Trick,” an arrangement for acoustic ukulele of the same Purcell march which had started it off in so unsatisfactory a fashion.  This acoustic version is far superior to the electronic one.  The repetitions that had been so tedious on the electric uke give this version an irresistible driving force.  If only it had been chosen as track one and the electronic version had been cut, the album would have been in a different league.   

Unlike Hearts of Oak,  Pluck shows the UOGB in their now familiar form.  Several members of the band take turns on lead vocals, most of the tracks are covers, and comedy is never far away.  The band redid a couple of numbers in later performances.  The version of “Life on Mars” here features Jonty Bankes giving a far less assured vocal performance than he would turn in when he sang the same song at the Barbican in 2005, even though the later performance also included several more voices making a melange of other, similar tunes.  Here, Jonty’s only competition is George chiming in with the occasional line from “My Way.”  That Barbican set also included Will Grove-White clowning through “Hot Tamales,” which he sings on this disc in a relatively straight version.  The version here is more danceable, and I’m glad to have both. 

The Wild West influence that is so much in evidence on Hearts of Oak peeks out a bit on Pluck, notably in the theme from “The Magnificent Seven.”  Slowed down from the original version and played with reggae-like holes in the rhythm, this number will remind most listeners of the UOGB’s version of the theme from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (also part of the 2005 Barbican set.)  That’s a shame; while the later piece is a much more impressive feat of musicianship, this one is also fun, and an interesting comment on the original. 

Anyone who laughed at Tom Lehrer’s “Masochism Tango” will howl through “Can I Break Your Heart?”  Not only they; Mrs Acilius, for example, doesn’t seem to care for Tom Lehrer or that song, but she sings along and laughs when “Can I Break Your Heart?” comes on the CD player. 

Amid all the jokiness, there are some serious songs.  The lyrics to “Try Hard,” with its criminally-inclined narrator, may read like a joke, but the song as they play it turns out to have a touch of pathos; George and Kitty’s “Completely Broken Hearted” is quite affecting; and George’s rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” makes me want to jump up and cheer every time I hear it.  

The best introduction to the band is a live show, or failing that, a video.  So, if you are going to start buying their stuff, I would recommend starting with the videos they’ve released so far, one showing the 2005 Barbican show and the other showing last year’s performance at the BBC Proms.  Once you have those, I would recommend Hearts of Oak.   Pluck is a treat for confirmed fans, but I suspect most others would rather just download the mp3s of a few selected tracks.

What James K. Polk Knew

President James Knox Polk

I’ve long tended to look at American history and see in the presidency of James Knox Polk (1845-1849) the origin of a great curse.  President Polk led the United States into war with Mexico.  In consequence of that war, the United States forced Mexico to cede its claims on all territory north of its present boundaries.  The US victory was quick and easy; for a loss of about 13,000 soldiers, the USA gained an internationally undisputed claim to almost a million square miles of territory, stretching from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean.  Americans would flood into this territory, displacing and slaughtering the native peoples on whom the Mexicans had made so little impression during their years of nominal rule.  Northern and Southern states vied with each other for influence over this newly secured territory, a contest that laid the political groundwork for the Civil War twelve years later.  As the USA’s first successful attack on a sovereign nation, the invasion of Mexico crossed a psychological boundary which previous attacks on native peoples and British possessions had left in place.  Moreover, the relatively low cost and fantastically rich rewards of the US victory fed in Americans the cannibal appetites of militarism.  So the curse that I have seen as the legacy of the Polk administration includes nearly all of America’s subsequent wars.    

President Polk represented the Democratic Party; his chief opposition was the Whig Party.  I’m a bit of a Whig myself, which is one reason why I chose a cartoon image of Millard Fillmore as my WordPress avatar.*  Leading Whigs like Fillmore spoke out against the invasion of Mexico.  The Whig-dominated Massachusetts legislature passed a resolution during the war denouncing the US effort as the result of a criminal conspiracy to extend slavery into the West.  When Polk claimed that Mexico’s hostile greeting to a US cavalry column he had dispatched into Mexican territory between the Rio del Norte and the Nueces somehow constituted an act by which “American blood was shed on American soil,” Illinois’ Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln introduced a resolution into the US House of Representatives demanding that the president show the Congress the spot on which this had occurred.  The so-called “Spot Resolution” had the support of the congressional Whig party, and made Lincoln a national figure.  Among future President Lincoln’s colleagues in the House was former President John Quincy Adams.  Technically an independent, Adams was a hero to the Whigs, a friend to Whig Party mastermind Henry Clay, and a reliable supporter of the Whigs’ core policies.  Adams would collapse on the House floor and die in the Capitol; virtually his last earthly act was to vote against a resolution commending US veterans of the war against Mexico.  Many young Whigs who fought in the war would afterward match their elders in the fervor with which they denounced it; Ulysses S. Grant, for example, would write in his memoirs that as a young captain he had won his medals as a perpetrator of “the most unjust war ever waged.”     

The Whigs championed industrialization.  They saw economic centralization as indispensible to industrialization.  Therefore, they were allies of big business and generally sympathetic to established elites.  As such, they would have to be called a conservative party, and their opposition to the war against Mexico would qualify them, if only for the duration of the Polk  administration, as specimens of the antiwar Right.  Chronicles magazine is a voice of today’s antiwar Right, but not of renewed Whiggery.  Their July issue included a review of Robert W. Merry’s A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent which praises Merry for making a case that Polk was right.  Since I’m so far out of sympathy with Polk and his war, I will quote at length from this review:

Here is the geopolitical reality that Polk grasped.  In the 1840’s, the western third of the North American continent was in play.  The players were the United States, Great Britain, Russia, and Mexico.  Each claimed some portion of that vast territory.  Polk understood that the question was not which of those claims was most legitimate (who, after all, would decide that?),  but which of the four powers had the means and will to enforce their own claims.  Mexico did not.  She “was a dysfunctional, unstable, weak nation whose population wasn’t sufficient to control all the lands within its domain.”  Bernard deVoto made the same point two generations ago:

[I]t is a fundamental mistake to think of Mexico in this period, or for many years before, as a republic, or even as a government.  It must be understood as a late stage in the breakdown of the Spanish Empire. 

There was no stability or institutional legitimacy in Mexico.  Revolution followed revolution, coup succeeded coup.  Mexican governments could neither govern, protect, nor populate the country’s far northern provinces.  That incapacity was most obvious in New Mexico, where the people were oppressed by taxes and terrorized by Indian raids, and consequently not inclined to fight in its defense.  Thus did Gen. Manuel Armijo’s army of conscripts flee at the approach of the Americans.  Col. Stephen Watts Kearney’s army of frontier dragoons and Missouri volunteer cavalry took Santa Fe without a fight.   

There are some good points in this.  What Mexico ceded to the USA in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was not land that was populated by people loyal to Mexico and protected by its government, but was instead a claim on territory chiefly inhabited by native people who were barely aware of the existence of Mexico.  It is not too harsh to say that by 1846 Mexico had failed to make good on this claim.  And it is also true that in the mid-1840s Russia and Britain were both very active in the nortwestern parts of North America.  So if Polk had lost 1844 election to Whig nominee Henry Clay, and Clay had as president refused to make war on Mexico, then there would have been a considerable likelihood that instead of confronting each other in a the Crimea in 1854-1856 Britain and Russia would have had their showdown in San Francisco Bay.  But I’m still not for the Mexican War.        

*Here’s the cartoon Fillmore, for those of you who’d like a look:

Ambrose Bierce and The Man Without Illusions

Several weeks ago, The Nation ran a review-essay about Ambrose Bierce.  A few days before happening on this piece, I’d my old Dover Thrift Edition collection of Bierce’s Civil War stories, a paperback I’d bought for a dollar in 1996 and had been meaning to read ever since.  I was interested in the reviewer’s remarks about one of those stories in particular:

In another powerful story, “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch,” Bierce writes of a face-off between two batteries of well-fortified Confederate cannons, twelve in total, and a single Union cannon crew led by Captain Coulter. Coulter’s crew is forced into an open notch and ordered to engage in a firefight just because a general in the field wants to see if the stories of Coulter’s bravery are true. Though Coulter hesitates, he follows the order. He and his crew wheel one cannon out to the notch and commence firing. Soon the twelve Confederate cannons respond and the two sides are lost in the thunderous explosions and enormous clouds of artillery smoke. Each time one of Coulter’s cannons is destroyed, his crew wheels a new one up to the notch so the fight can continue. Eventually the Union officers ride up to the notch to check on Coulter and his men:

Within that defile, barely broad enough for a single gun, were piled the wrecks of no fewer than four. They had noted the silencing of only the last one disabled—there had been a lack of men to replace it quickly with another. The debris lay on both sides of the road; the men had managed to keep an open way between, through which the fifth piece was now firing. The men?—they looked like demons of the pit! All were hatless, all stripped to the waist, their reeking skins black with blotches of powder and spattered with gouts of blood. They worked like madmen, with rammer and cartridge, lever and lanyard. They set their swollen shoulders and bleeding hands against the wheels at each recoil and heaved the heavy gun back to its place. There were no commands; in that awful environment of whooping shot, exploding shells, shrieking fragments of iron, and flying splinters of wood, none could have been heard. Officers, if officers there were, were indistinguishable; all worked together—each while he lasted—governed by the eye. When the gun was sponged, it was loaded; when loaded, aimed and fired. The colonel observed something new to his military experience—something horrible and unnatural: the gun was bleeding at the mouth! In temporary default of water, the man sponging had dipped his sponge into a pool of comrade’s blood.

The cannon drooling blood is certainly a memorable image, and as I read the story I was sure it would be the detail that stayed with me.  By the end, however, even that horror has been put into the shade.  At first we think that Captain Coulter’s commanding officer sent him to that desperately exposed position and ordered him to shell the house opposite simply because he “wants to see if the stories of Coulter’s bravery are true.”  Then one officer tells another that Coulter was a southerner who had left his family behind Confederate lines to join the Union army.  He goes on to report a rumor that the commander had led an occupying force that patroled the area where Coulter’s family was.  This rumor held that the commander had made advances to Coulter’s wife.  She rebuffed him, and the officer wonders if that was why the commander put Coulter in such danger.  By the end of the story, even this grotesque idea is shown to be short of the full horror of the situation. 

The Nation‘s reviewer quotes Bierce’s definition of “realism” from The Devil’s Dictionary as “The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.”  This quote is at the center of a little disquisition on Bierce’s use of improbable events in his fiction.  The last two paragraphs of the review sum this disquisition up:

Bierce often resorted to horror, whether grisly war stories or even supernatural tales, but he didn’t do this to avoid writing about reality; he used the genre to confront the truths of his day—the monstrosity of battle, the terror of extinction.

Read Bierce and try not to think of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Read Bierce and consider the ways “probability” can be a poor test; sometimes realism just fails. Every era needs a genre through which it understands itself. We are living in the age of the uncanny once again. Time to testify.

This point is very close to something that came to my mind while I was reading that collection of Bierce’s Civil War stories.  The stories are full of wildly improbable events; random shots fired at distant enemies can be relied upon to kill the gunners’ fathers, brothers, wives.  Bierce presents these freak occurrences not to undercut the sense of his stories’ reality, but to emphasize their truthfulness.   

What truth does Bierce want us to think fills his stories?  I think it is the same truth that was publicized almost two decades ago, when a hit movie was advertised with an image of a Marine colonel shouting “You can’t handle the truth!”  Even though the movie passed through theaters in 1992,  a Google search for “You can’t handle the truth” restricted to results that went up this week draws over 16,000 hits.  I wonder if the resonance of that line and the power of Bierce’s stories don’t combine to show that there is an idea at large in American culture of truth as something necessarily violent, of war as the ultimate truth.  If so, the colonel in the movie and the highly decorated Civil War veteran Bierce would both figure as men with a privileged access to truth, as warriors who had seen the heart of battle. 


No one was barred from the conversation back when there was a conversation

Three paragraphs from Bill Kauffman’s column in the latest issue of The American Conservative:

The War Party called the Peace Party Nazis in 1941, Communists in 1951, Soviet dupes in 1961, dirty hippies in 1971 … must I go on? In 2011, those who heed George Washington’s counsel to seek “peace and harmony with all” will be called mullah-headed appeasers of Irano-fascism.


Blame war. Blame TV. Blame the nationalization of political discourse, as regional variations and individual peculiarities are washed away by the generic slime of poli-talk shows. Radicals—even naïve Tea Partiers or idealistic left-wing kids—are dehumanized in ways unthinkable when America was a free country. No one was barred from the conversation back when there was a conversation. No dispatch ever read, “Wingnut Henry David Thoreau today issued a manifesto from his compound near Walden Pond…”


The squeezing out even of establishment dissent—especially since 9/11—has left us with an antiwar movement so feeble it makes the Esperanto lobby look like the AARP. Enter the new organization Come Home, America, its name taken from the magnificent 1972 acceptance speech delivered by George McGovern in the last unscripted Democratic convention.

I don’t agree that there was ever a time in the USA when “no one was excluded from the conversation”; when Thoreau published Walden in 1854, after all, chattel slavery existed in 15 states, women’s suffrage in none, and the one thing every US voter could support was war against Native Americans.  That said, Come Home, America and its goal of a left-right coalition against militarism seem to be worth a cheer or two.

Remarkable coincidence

Here’s a comment I just had occasion to post on Alison Bechdel’s site:

This morning, I was teaching a class about English words derived from Latin and Greek. One of the exercises required them to write definitions of English words and illustrate their definitions with examples of the words in use.

I wanted to show them how they could use Lexis-Nexis* to find example sentences. So I projected the computer onto the screen in front of the classroom and opened the Lexis-Nexis search window. I asked the class which word they wanted me to look for in my demonstration. From a list of several dozen words, someone picked “neurosis.” So I typed “neurosis” into the search window. Up came hundreds of results. Looking these over, we could see not only potential definitions, but a good deal about the usage of the word. For example, finding it in hundreds of daily newspapers but only one medical journal we formed the hypothesis that it is a word that is no longer in technical use, an hypothesis which that one journal reference** explicitly confirmed.

Then I wanted to show them that you can narrow the search so that it only brings up items posted today. When I did that, paragraphs six through eight of this article appeared on the screen***:

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I gave a little eulogy for Harvey Pekar and said something like, “Hey, Alison Bechdel! She’s great!”****  Then it was back to lexicography.

*Here’s a link to Lexis-Nexis.  My students and I have access to their “Academic” service

**It was the 2 May 2009 edition of The Lancet, in case you’re curious; “Twisted Science, Regulation, and Molecules,” by Peter Tyrer, Pg. 1513 Vol. 373 No. 9674, wherein appear the sentences “The condition from which my patient suffers used to be called depressive neurosis. It was not a very good diagnostic label, and its boundaries were unclear, but it did allow anxiety and depression to coexist without the need for splitting them into interminable subgroups that, when they were subsequently found together in one person, were pompously described as “comorbidity.”” 

***The portion that appears on screen starts with the search term you used to find the article.  The first appearance of “neurosis” was near the top of paragraph six, and the screen I was using had room for that paragraph and the next two. 

**** Come to think of it, it may have been closer to “Whoa, there’s Alison Bechdel!”  Or maybe “Whaa–!  Alison Bechdel!”  It may even have been “Alison Bechdel!  Golly!”  I taught another class right after that one, so I can’t be certain of my exact phrasing.

New Post on Weirdomatic

FotB Alexandra has posted a new gallery on her terrific site, Weirdomatic.  The title is “Happy Things Pictures,” and it’s irresistible. 

Tuli Kupferberg, RIP

They say there’s a “rule of threes,” that celebrities always die three at a time.  It’s nonsense, of course, but it often seems that way.  So, the other day we lost Harvey Pekar.  Yesterday, we heard that George Steinbrenner had died.  And now, news comes to us of the death of Tuli Kupferberg.  We featured Tuli’s song “Nobody for President” here in November 2008; here it is again.