About Corazon

Friday, November 22, 2013

The "Other Guy" Assassinated 50 Years Ago Today

In the early afternoon hours of November 22, 1963, the Dallas Police Department received word that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. Details were sketchy, but early reports stated that the alleged gunman was a slender white male, in his mid-thirties, about 5'10' and 175 lbs (Oswald was 24 years old, 5'9'' and 150 lbs).

Responding to the call that afternoon was Officer J.D. Tippet, an 11-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department.  Tippet was also a U.S. Army veteran, a husband and a father of three children (at the time ages 14, 10 and 5).

According to official police reports, along with reports issued by the Warren Commission, Tippet responded to a radio call to help set up a perimeter around the central Oak Cliff area, just outside where President Kennedy had been shot.  While in route to the area, Officer Tippet pulled alongside a pedestrian who resembled the vague description of the gunman that had been provided just minutes prior.  According to witness reports, Officer Tippet opened the door of his patrol car and exchanged words with the man.  Just seconds later, witnesses stated that the man suddenly drew a handgun and fired three shots at close range, all of which struck Officer Tippet in the chest.  The gunman then approached Officer Tippet, who had fallen from the first three shots, and fired a final round into his head.  Officer Tippet was dead before help arrived.

Shortly thereafter, responding Dallas police officers took a young man named Lee Harvey Oswald into custody.  It was reported that Mr. Oswald was "acting suspiciously" when approaching units arrived in the area.  After finding his gun and obtaining positive witness identification that he was indeed the shooter, Dallas Police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald for the murder of Officer J.D. Tippet.

It wasn't until later that police officers and Secret Service personnel were able to piece together the facts and conclude that Oswald was indeed the man who had assassinated President Kennedy. Had it not been for the quick response and thinking of Officer J.D. Tippet, who stopped Oswald just 20 minutes after having shot Kennedy, Oswald might have had the serious chance of fleeing from Dallas before being caught.

Kudos to a forgotten hero who gave his life but in the process caught one of the most notorious villains in American history.

Officer J.D. Tippet
Age: 39
Tour of Service: 11 years, 4 months

End of Watch: November 22, 1963 

Why Kennedy Was In Dallas 50 Years Ago

The Speech He Never
Had the Chance to Deliver

It was 50 years ago that America lost a portion of its innocence as its 35th president was assassinated in broad daylight on the streets of Dallas.

The death of President Kennedy rocked a nation that had already endured (and would yet endure) a number of struggles, ranging from the death of Martin Luther King to the horrors of the Vietnam War.

But why was President Kennedy in Dallas to begin with?  That is a question that often goes overlooked.

Though he had not officially announced his reelection campaign, President Kennedy had, in the weeks prior to his Dallas trip, laid out an introductory plan of sorts that would eventually culminate in his bid for a second term.  At the end of September, President Kennedy traveled west, speaking in nine different states in less than a week.  During his visits, President Kennedy highlighted his plan (which was to become a large part of his reelection plan) to focus on natural resources, renewable energy, education, world peace proposals, an aggressive conservation agenda, and further plans for space exploration.

During these initial trips, President Kennedy expressed to his closest advisers his belief that victory in both Florida and Texas would be essential if he hoped to win a second term in the White House. As a result, further visits to both of those states were scheduled for the future. President Kennedy was particularly concerned about a growing number of extremists, especially in cities like Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, where were beginning to pose resistance to Democrat strongholds (even U.S. Ambassador and former presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson had been assaulted earlier in September while delivering a speech in Dallas).  In addition, the trip was meant to resolve some issues that had come up between opposing factions within the Democratic Party in Texas.  For the President and his advisers, the trip to Dallas, which was sure to be the first of many to the Lone Star State, was a no-brainer.

Of course, the rest of the story is known by virtually every American.  President Kennedy met an untimely demise while making his way to Dealey Plaza.  Once there, the President planned to make the following speech.  Below are some of the words of the Speech that John F. Kennedy was never able to deliver.  They highlight some of the "coming attractions" that we never got to see.  You can read the speech in its entirety by clicking here:

There will always be dissident voices heard in the land, expressing opposition without alternatives, finding fault but never favor, perceiving gloom on every side and seeking influence without responsibility. Those voices are inevitable.
But today other voices are heard in the land --- voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, wholly unsuited to the sixties, doctrines which apparently assume that words will suffice without weapons, that vituperation is as good as victory and that peace is a sign of weakness. At a time when the national debt is steadily being reduced in terms of its burden on our economy, they see that debt as the greatest single threat to our security. At a time when we are steadily reducing the number of Federal employees serving every thousand citizens, they fear those supposed hordes of civil servants far more than the actual hordes of opposing armies.
About 70 percent of our military assistance goes to nine key countries located on or near the borders of the Communist bloc --- nine countries confronted directly or indirectly with the threat of Communist aggression --- Viet Nam, Free China, Korea, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Greece, Turkey, and Iran. No one of these countries possesses on its own the resources to maintain the forces which our own Chiefs of Staff think needed in the common interest. Reducing our efforts to train, equip, and assist their armies can only encourage Communist penetration and require in time the increased overseas deployment of American combat forces. And reducing the economic help needed to bolster these nations that undertake to help defend freedom can have the same disastrous result. In short, the $50 billion we spend each year on our own defense could well be ineffective without the $4 billion required for military and economic assistance.
Our foreign aid program is not growing in size; it is, on the contrary, smaller now than in previous years. It has had its weaknesses, but we have undertaken to correct them. And the proper way of treating weaknesses is to replace them with strength, not to increase those weaknesses by emasculating essential programs. Dollar for dollar, in or out of government, there is no better form of investment in our national security than our much-abused foreign aid program. We cannot afford to lose it. We can afford to maintain it. We can surely afford, for example, to do as much for our 19 needy neighbors of Latin America as the Communist bloc is sending to the island of Cuba alone.
I have spoken of strength largely in terms of the deterrence and resistance of aggression and attack. But, in today's world, freedom can be lost without a shot being fired, by ballots as well as bullets. The success of our leadership is dependent upon respect for our mission in the world as well as our missiles --- on a clearer recognition of the virtues of freedom as well as the evils of tyranny.
That is why our Information Agency has doubled the shortwave broadcasting power of the Voice of America and increased the number of broadcasting hours by 30 percent, increased Spanish language broadcasting to Cuba and Latin America from 1 to 9 hours a day, increased seven-foid to more than 35 million copies the number of American books being translated and published for Latin American readers, and taken a host of other steps to carry our message of truth and freedom to all the far corners of the earth.
And that is also why we have regained the initiative in the exploration of outer space, making an annual effort greater than the combined total of all space activities undertaken during the fifties, launching more than 130 vehicles into earth orbit, putting into actual operation valuable weather and communications satellites, and making it clear to all that the United States of America has no intention of finishing second in space.
This effort is expensive --- but it pays its own way, for freedom and for America. For there is no longer any fear in the free world that a Communist lead in space will become a permanent assertion of supremacy and the basis of military superiority. There is no longer any doubt about the strength and skill of American science, American industry, American education, and the American free enterprise system. In short, our national space effort represents a great gain in, and a great resource of our national strength --- and both Texas and Texans are contributing greatly to this strength.
Finally, it should be clear by now that a nation can be no stronger abroad than she is at home. Only an America which practices what it preaches about equal rights and social justice will be respected by those whose choice affects our future. Only an America which has fully educated its citizens is fully capable of tackling the complex problems and perceiving the hidden dangers of the world in which we live. And only an America which is growing and prospering economically can sustain the worldwide defenses of freedom, while demonstrating to all concerned the opportunities of our system and society.
My friends and fellow citizens: I cite these facts and figures to make it clear that America today is stronger than ever before. Our adversaries have not abandoned their ambitions, our dangers have not diminished, our vigilance cannot be relaxed. But now we have the military, the scientific, and the economic strength to do whatever must be done for the preservation and promotion of freedom.
That strength will never be used in pursuit of aggressive ambitions --- it will always be used in pursuit of peace. It will never be used to promote provocations --- it will always be used to promote the peaceful settlement of disputes.
We in this country, in this generation, are --- by destiny rather than choice --- the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of "peace on earth, good will toward men." That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago, "except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain."

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Seven Score and Ten Years Ago...

On this day, 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln delivered a two-minute speech that would go down in history as arguably the greatest speech in American presidential history.

The Gettysburg Address, which wasn't even meant to be the primary speech of the day (the Honorable Edward Everett had prepared a two-hour discourse to commemorate the occasion), has been rightfully praised as a landmark moment in the already stellar legacy that was Lincoln's presidency.  Even 150 years later, the words of his short speech stir our deepest emotions of patriotism and respect for those who give "their last full measure of devotion" in the service of their country.

Below are the words to the Gettysburg Address.  Take a couple of minutes today to reflect on them.  As you will see for yourself, there is only one major flaw in the speech. Lincoln stated that, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here."

He couldn't have been more wrong.

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.  We are met on a great battlefield of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who gave their lives that this nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.  The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but we can never forget what they did here.  It is fur us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have this far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
And for your listening and viewing pleasure:

Monday, November 18, 2013

"Drinking the Kool-Aid": Lessons From Jonestown

Thirty-five years ago today, 918 people lost their lives in what became known as the "Jonestown Massacre."  Until September 11, 2001, the Jonestown Massacre held the unfortunate distinction of being the event that resulted in the largest loss of life among American civilians.

It is from this horrible incident that we draw the metaphor, "drinking the Kool-Aid," because the victims of this terrible tragedy drank a poisoned concoction that combined Kool-Aid and cyanide.

Virtually all of us see Jonestown for what it ultimately was: a horrific cult whose membership had been brainwashed by their evil leader, Jim Jones. Most of us would like to think that we would be intelligent enough to avoid becoming members of such an organization.  After all, only "crazy people" join cults, right?


The members of the "Peoples Temple" (this was the official name of Jim Jones' movement) came from all walks of life.  Though it is true that the majority of its members came from blue collar roots, the Peoples Temple also had members who were employed as doctors, teachers, bankers and even a couple of lawyers.  Simply put, Jim Jones' message appealed to a wide range of people from all walks of life.

And who could blame them?  Here are just a few of the more popular teachings of Jim Jones (keep in mind, Jones founded his organization in 1955 and many of these beliefs were cutting edge for the day):
-God wanted racial integration and for all people to be treated equal.
-Poverty and hunger are unacceptable to God and should be eradicated by any true disciple of Jesus Christ.
-We should all live together and attempt to establish a Utopian society that is free of social status, hunger and poverty.
-We are to be "in the world" but not "of the world," meaning that true disciples will band together, regardless of race, and work to shed the evil ways of the world.
-All men are created equal under God, and deserve the chance to fully develop themselves as they see fit.
Not exactly the ranting of a madman, right!?!

So why then did the Peoples Temple movement degenerate into utter chaos and downright madness?  This has, of course, been a topic of conversation for many sociologists, psychologists, historians and theologians for nearly four decades, and it will likely continue for many more in the future.  Obviously we have to recognize the leadership abilities of Jim Jones and his capacity to persuade his flock as being a major contributing factor, but at the same time we cannot give him all of the credit.  Why is is that people, intelligent and dim-witted, get sucked into groups like these? Do such groups exist today? How do you recognize them? Might we unknowingly be members of such groups right now?  All of these questions are worthy of consideration.

According to the research of Dr. Janja Lalich and Dr. Michael Langone, two Ph.D. Professors of Psychology who have studied the characteristics of cults in great detail, it can be difficult to conclusively pin down a cult, since many organizations (even businesses, musicians and professional athletic teams) exhibit cult-like behaviors or have cult-like followings.  With that said, they do provide a few key characteristics that all cult organizations seem to have in common.  They are:
1.) Excessive, zealous and unquestioning commitment to a leader, who is not accountable to anyone in the organization (and in some cases society at large).
2.) Mind-altering practices (i.e. meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, debilitating work routines) used to suppress doubt about the group and its leader.
3.) Leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, feel, etc., and defends it with severe punishments for violation of these new rules.
4.) The group becomes elitist, claiming special or exalted status for its members and leaders over the rest of humanity.  This creates an "us v. them" mentality in which members of the cult see outsiders as undesirable and potentially dangerous.
5.) The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends and purpose justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members participating in activities that most would deem reprehensible or unethical (i.e. suicide bombing).
6.) Leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and control its members.
7.) The group becomes preoccupied with bringing in new members.
8.) The group is preoccupied with making money.
9.) Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group or group-related activities.
Dr. Ron Rhodes, an Evangelical minister, essentially agrees with the assessment above, but simplifies what he sees as cult-like behaviors into 6 key attributes: Authoritarian leadership, exclusivity, isolationism, fear of being "disfellowshiped," threats of satanic attack, and opposition to critical thinking.  In essence, both the scientific perspective of professional psychologists and the appraisal of religious leaders are in agreement on this matter.

Personally, I agree with the assessments mentioned above. In my estimation, all cults exhibit these attributes.  I do not, however, believe that we should liberally apply these categories to all alleged cults.  In fact, I believe that the term "cult" is used far too freely in the world today and in reality, very few organizations can and should be considered true cults.

As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) I have seen how the term "cult" can be applied in a wanton and reckless manner.  Whether it be Pastor Robert Jeffress' accusation during the Romney campaign or the Reed Smoot hearings in which many members of Congress made the same allegations, the term "cult" is oftentimes employed as a "scary word" to invoke shock more than being a true appraisal of an organization's actual behavior.

With that being said, and instead of arbitrarily pointing fingers at which groups are and are not cults, I believe that a far better way to learn from cults like Jonestown is to focus on the behaviors of the individual as opposed to the group as a whole.  Too often we lump people in with others simply by their association with a group or cause.  And though it is true that association can tell us a great deal about an individual, it is a far too simplistic method of understanding why people do what they do. After all, most followers of the Jonestown community were good, honest and sincere people who left long before the Peoples Temple ventured down the path of the insane.

What I am ultimately trying to say is this: instead of labeling a group or organization as being cult-like, perhaps the correct course of action is to assess the behaviors of individuals (and certainly assess our own behaviors by looking inside ourselves) to determine if they are cult-like.  For example, a devout follower of liberal or conservative politics, who cannot or will not even consider the opinions of those who do not share his/her views, is, in my opinion, drinking the Kool-Aid every bit as much as his/her Jonestown counterpart.  Does this make the Democratic/Republican Party a cult?

Or take the example of my faith, which as I have mentioned above has been accused of being a cult on numerous occasions.  To be certain, there are Mormons out there (I know many of them) who esteem their leaders as demigods, who become elitist in their views, who believe that only fellow Mormons will be saved in heaven, etc., etc., etc.  They are, however, the exception and not the rule.  Most Mormons are free thinking, non-elitist and at least try their best to accept all people and views.  They come from different walks of life and have differences of opinion (i.e. Mitt Romney v. Harry Reid).  They participate in many different types of activities, jobs and trades (everything from Quarterback Steve Young to lead singer Brandon Flowers of The Killers).

And it's not just faith traditions that could be (at least according to the guidelines listed above) considered cult-like.  Take for instance many atheists, who esteem the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. above all others.  Many will become elitist in their world view, never questioning the "doctrines" of atheism as prescribed by science.  They see their world view as being THE WORLD VIEW and all others are either diluted in their thinking or too stupid to reach their level of "enlightenment."

Of course, I'm not suggesting that Democrats, Republicans, Mormons or atheists are cults, but I am suggesting that many of their respective followers are often very cult-like in their world view and behavior.  They drink the "Kool-Aid" of their respective "creeds" every bit as much as the Jonestown dead.

I think my point here is clear (or at least I hope it is).  Though cult-like organizations certainly exist and need to be opposed, they are few and far between.  What is far more prevalent is the existence of cult-like individuals, who adopt absolutist mentalities about their respective positions, creating an "Us v. Them" mentality in the process.  They fully drink the Kool-Aid, oftentimes unaware of the poison that exists therein.  They allow personal pride, peer pressure and cognitive dissonance to convince them that their way is THE WAY.  And these cult-like people are everywhere: in business, politics, religion, science, etc.  The key to guarding against this plague is to recognize the poison that exists in every single batch of Kool-Aid.  As Author Robert Anton Wilson put it:
Only the madman is absolutely sure.

Presidential 2nd Terms: Why Are They Such a Mess?

The past few weeks have been a tough one for President Barack Obama.  Issues surrounding the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), particularly the inefficacy of the new website, coupled with the extremely low number of registrants, have created a perfect storm for what has been one of the President's primary achievements while in office.  The long fight to improve health care for American citizens has actually come back to bite the President in a very real and dramatic way.

Such is the case with two-term U.S. Presidents.  For whatever reason, history shows that most (though certainly not all) two-term presidents experience their greatest difficulties during the second half of their time in office.  In this respect, President Obama's struggles are hardly unique.  In fact, they are relatively mild in many respects.  Let's take a look at some of the struggles that have plagued many of our nation's presidents who have had the luxury of serving two terms:

George Washington: Yes, as hard as it may be to believe, even America's "indispensable man" as John Adams called him, faced difficulty and scorn during his second term.  As our nation's first president, if fell to Washington to set many of the precedents that the infant U.S. Republic would be required to adopt.  One of these precedents had to do with economic security and prosperity.  In the wake of the American Revolution, the U.S. faced an important crossroad: align its economic and trade interests with the French, who had, of course, been incredibly helpful during America's fight for independence, or, as crazy as it sounded to many, side with Great Britain, their former enemy and mother country.  Long story short, Washington, at the urging of Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, sent Chief Justice John Jay to London to negotiate a deal that created an economic alliance between England and the United States.  What became known as the "Jay Treaty" proved to be an incredibly important and successful economic alliance that dramatically benefited both the United States and Great Britain.  As Historian Joseph Ellis points out in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Founding Brothers:
The Jay Treaty, in effect, bet on England instead of France...as being the hegemonic European power of the future, which proved prophetic (136-137).
And though it proved to be a long-term blessing, the Jay Treaty was not popular among the American populace.  Protests and rebellions broke out over what many saw as a "sell out" to their former enemy.  Even Thomas Jefferson called the Jay Treaty "the downfall of the American Republic."  For Washington, the criticism over the Jay Treaty was a low point that, in many respects, forced him out of politics once and for all. Even America's greatest hero, who repelled scorn like Teflon, was not above reproach.

Thomas Jefferson: In December, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson, who had enjoyed a relatively peaceful and prosperous first term in office, received news from his British and French ambassadors that troubled him greatly.  The on-again, off-again, on-again conflict between France and Britain had reached a boiling point, placing American trade interests at risk. Napoleon made it clear that he would stop any American merchant ship bound for British shores, and the British made the same threat for any ship bound for France.  This, of course, angered American merchants who stood to lose a great deal from this European conflict.

Instead of attempting to defend American shipping interests or trying to negotiate some sort of a deal with Britain and/or France, Jefferson (through Congress) passed the Embargo Act, which essentially grounded all American trading.  For President Jefferson, who saw the Embargo Act as "a means for keeping our ships and seamen out of harm's way," the move proved to be the greatest blunder of his presidency.  Jefferson believed that the Embargo Act would put pressure on both the French and British economy, who both benefited and enjoyed the goods that came from American commerce.  Jefferson was wrong.  British and French merchants simply went elsewhere throughout Europe to make up for the difference.  In the end, the only loser was the United States.  Needless to say, American merchants held Jefferson responsible for the blunder.

Ulysses S. Grant: Though President Grant suffered from the loss of some of his supporters, his quest for a second term proved to be relatively easy.  As the hero of the Civil War, Grant held tremendous appeal and despite some allegations of corruption within his cabinet, most Americans believed the President deserved a second term.  Once inaugurated for the second time, however, President Grant faced quite the storm.  The Panic 1873, which was sparked by the fall of the Northern Pacific Railway, sent ripples throughout the American economy.  Grant's ignorance of economic policy only exacerbated matters and led to a 5-year industrial depression.  In addition, the ongoing scandals and allegations of corruption within his cabinet grew to an unprecedented level. And though Grant was never implicated (and was likely never involved) in most of the corruption that plagued his cabinet, the brunt of the responsibility fell at his desk.  Grant's second term in office proved to be extremely problematic and highly ineffective.

Woodrow Wilson: At the conclusion of the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson saw an opportunity to create an international coalition that could prevent the atrocities that had nearly crippled Europe from ever happening again.  The League of Nations, which Wilson vehemently believed was in America's best interests, became an important cause during his second term in office. The only problem is that Republicans in Congress opposed American membership in the LoN and favored neutrality.  Wilson campaigned passionately in favor of American involvement in the LoN. He tirelessly toured the country, giving speeches and working out compromises with members of Congress.  Wilson worked so hard that he eventually had a stroke in September of 1919, which dramatically limited his ability to defend his position on the LoN.  Unfortunately for Wilson, Congress voted against joining the League of Nations; a failure that Wilson believed would plunge Europe into war yet again.  He proved to be right.

Harry Truman: As the man who coined the phrase, "The Buck Stops Here," Truman was forced to swallow the very difficult pill that was the Korean War during his second term in office. The escalation of the conflict, which eventually led to nothing more than a glorified stalemate, was laid almost exclusively at Truman's feet.  Truman's passionate belief that the "world must be protected from the evils of Soviet communism" convinced the President that the cost of war was worth the price and loss of life.  Truman's decision to remove General Douglas MacArthur, a decision that was extremely unpopular with the American public, caused the President's approval ratings to plummet.  The frustrating stalemate in Korea, which led to the deaths of over 30,000 American troops, proved to be too much for Truman, who saw approval ratings as low as 22% during his second term in office.

Lyndon Johnson: It was on Johnson's watch that American involvement in the Vietnam War was escalated to an unprecedented level.  Johnson, who like many previous presidents, believed in the "Domino Theory" (the notion that if one nation fell to Communism others would as well), felt that American involvement in Vietnam was essential for the containment of Communism.  As the body count began piling up, Johnson eventually came to see his insistence on victory in Vietnam as an unavoidable curse that plagued his second term.  As he stated:
I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved...if I left that war and let the Communists take over, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser, and we would find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on the entire globe. 
Richard Nixon: Watergate.  Need I say more?

Ronald Reagan: With his absolute annihilation of Walter Mondale in the Election of 1984, President Reagan appeared to be sailing calm seas during his second term in office.  In the summer of 1985 all of that would change.  The sale of illegal arms to Iran and the funding of Nicaraguan Contras became a scandal that Reagan was never able to shake.  The Iran-Contra Affair became a black stain on a presidency that had, for the most part, been seen as a success.  Reagan's second term also brought with it a $1 trillion dollar increase to the national debt.  This was an additional black eye for a president who had insisted that "Reaganomics" would reduce the national deficit.

Bill Clinton: As the first president in over 50 years to leave behind a debt surplus, most would think that Clinton's second term would be a celebrated success.  Only one problem: Monica Lewinsky.  As we all know, the President was ousted in front of the entire world for being a liar and a cheat.  The Lewinsky scandal eventually led to the Clinton Impeachment Hearings, which were a tremendous blemish and embarrassment on a presidency that had otherwise been successful.  As Clinton himself later stated: "I fought two battles during my presidency: a political and a personal.  I won the former but lost the latter."

George W. Bush: With his successful bid for a second term secure, President Bush believed that the success of the military surge in Iraq would prove to vindicate his decision to take the nation to war in that part of the world.  He was wrong.  In addition, federal response to Hurricane Katrina, which proved to be highly ineffective, fell at the feet of President W.  And if this wasn't enough, the financial collapse and subsequent bailout of 2008 let to George W. Bush receiving the lowest approval rating numbers of any standing president in American history.

Of course, not every two-term president faces difficulties.  And it is just as certain that one-term presidents face severe trials as well.  But for whatever reason, the "Second-term Curse" seems to be a real phenomenon.  One can only wonder what would be the legacy of Abraham Lincoln had he served a complete second term.  Perhaps he wouldn't be seen as the hero he is today.

In the end, the "Second-term Curse" proves that President James K. Polk (arguably the most successful one-term president ever) may have been right when he said: "If you cannot accomplish everything you want as president in one term, then perhaps you aren't fit for the job."

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Impact of the 3/5 Compromise

Our Founding Fathers were not perfect. Contrary to what we often hear via talk radio, the Internet or even in school, the men (and women) who helped build the American Republic were deeply flawed individuals who made more than their fair share of mistakes.

Of course, most of us recognize that our Founding Fathers were, in the end, humans, but too often we shy away from shedding too much light on some of the more serious mistakes they made. It is far more preferable to esteem these men as marble demigods whose images grace our currency.  This isn't to say that we should refrain from paying homage to our nation's founders. I for one strongly believe that the generation that brought us the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, etc. could easily be labeled as the "Greatest Generation" in all of American history (sorry, WWII vets. I still love ya!).

And there are plenty of pundits who are more than willing to point out where they believe our Founding Fathers went wrong. For example, Glenn Beck, America's favorite whack-job, believes that the gravest error made by our nation's founders was to not clarify the language of the Second Amendment.  HBO's Bill Maher believes that the greatest mistake made by the founding generation was that they should have extended the separation of church and state even further.  And Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, believes that their greatest mistake was not establishing term limits for Congressmen.

And though I can see how all three men arrived at their respective conclusions, I vehemently disagree with them all.  The language of the Second Amendment, the separation of church and state, and congressional term limits are small potatoes when compared to the biggest mistake our Founding Fathers made.

During the Constitutional Convention, James Madison noted an important observation that he and virtually every other delegate had made. He claimed that of all the difficulties separating Northern and Southern states, slavery was by far the biggest. It was the elephant in the room that nobody wanted to address specifically, but also nobody could ignore completely. Southern concern for preserving their "peculiar institution" led to more discord than any other issue that came before the Convention.

To make a very long story short, the Convention eventually agreed to a compromise that was later enshrined in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the U.S. Constitution:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons (my emphasis).  
Without even affording them the dignity of calling them what they were, all Black slaves (referred to here as "all other persons") were to be counted as 3/5 of a person in the national census.  The reason was simple: Southern leadership, who were more than aware of the North's superior population numbers, feared that they would be misrepresented in Congress.  Counting all Black slaves as 3/5 of a person, however, would even the odds and afford the South greater representation.  This, along with the Constitutional protection of slavery, helped to ease Southern concerns. Their "property rights" were now protected by federal law.

And they were right.

What became known as the 3/5 Compromise ended up having a dramatic impact in the South's ability to enforce their will on the whole of the infant American nation.  The first major example of how the 3/5 Compromise effected national politics was the Presidential Election of 1800.  In that election, Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams by only 7 electoral votes.  And though Jefferson managed to win a few key states in the North, The Electoral College map clearly shows the first of many divisions that would separate the North and the South:

As the votes were counted, Northern politicians quickly realized that without the 3/5 Compromise, Jefferson would have been defeated. The fact that slaves were being counted as part of the South's representation (without having any actual say in their government) had given Jefferson the victory; an ironic historical reality considering the fact that Jefferson himself kept 300+ souls in bondage to himself.

Later elections would have the same results.  The election of James Madison in 1812 and Martin Van Buren in 1836, were also determined in large part by the South's inflated electoral numbers that were caused by the 3/5 Compromise.

And it wasn't just in presidential elections that the 3/5 Compromise left its impression. Renowned historian Gary Wills contends that the 3/5 Compromise impacted a great number of historical events in the early republic:
Without the 3/5 Compromise, slavery would have been excluded from Missouri...Andrew Jackson's Indian removal policy would have failed...the Wilmot Proviso would have banned slavery in territories won from Mexico...the Kansas/Nebraska bill would have failed...and the likelihood of Civil War would have been dramatically reduced.
It is a cruel irony of history that the South's ability to exert its will, especially with regards to protecting slavery, was a self-inflicted wound that our Founding Fathers brought upon the infant American republic.  How much damage could have been averted is impossible to determine. The historical sin of "presentism" should prevent us from making such speculations.  But what is certain (with and without the lens of hindsight) is that the 3/5 Compromise was a tremendous blunder on the part of our nation's founders. It is an ugly skeleton in the American closet that should be seen for what it was: a terrible attempt to pacify a nation that was determined to keep its Black brothers and sisters in bondage in the "Land of the Free."

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Typical Medieval Diet (It's Not What You Probably Thought)

It was a cold and quiet morning here in Colorado Springs.  We're expecting the year's first major snow storm.  It's the kind of weather that forces you to stay inside, hunker down and either watch a movie or read.  And since there was nothing good on television this morning, I elected to finally read a few journal articles that I've had on the back shelf for quite some time.

This morning I read an article by Medieval historian Ramon Agustin Lopez entitled, "Consumption of Meat in Western European Cities During the Late Middle Ages." On the surface, this article probably seems cut-and-dry. After all, everyone knows (even those who've never studied Medieval history) that the typical peasant diet was lacking when it came to the basic nutritional needs required for the human body. This conclusion, however, is not as correct as we may think.  In his article, Dr. Lopez contends that while the typical Medieval diet was certainly not as healthy as it could have been, the culturally accepted notion that peasants starved or had little to eat is not as true as we may think.

To be certain, the Medieval world did not fully understand how the human body processed food, nor did they recognize which foods contained the beneficial proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, etc. that humans need. This nutritional deficiency, however, was not the result of a lack of food but rather a lack of maintaining a balanced diet.  As Dr. Lopez points out, over 80% of Medieval peasants enjoyed "more than sufficient portions of protein" in their daily meals. The primary source of this protein came from mutton, which was generally seen as the meat of the lower classes.  Nobility and other elites of society usually consumed beef (in rather large quantities), while the peasantry consumed the flesh of sheep.

In addition, Medieval peasantry consumed a large portion of beans, peas, eggs and lentils, which also augmented their protein intake.  In fact, the typical English peasant could expect to enjoy a rather bountiful table.  The average daily meal for such a person usually consisted of 2-3 pounds of bread, 8-14 ounces of protein (usually from mutton, eggs, or beans and fish in the coastal regions), and 3-6 pints of ale. Vegetables and fruits were a seasonal and regional product.

Of course, none of this takes into account the occasions in which famine, disease or climate effected the abundance of food.  To be certain, the Medieval world faced such difficulties on a reoccurring basis.  But when times were good (or at least "normal"), the typical Medieval family was not as deprived of nourishment as we may think.

The problems that resulted from the typical Medieval diet were usually related to contamination and a lack of nutritional diversity.  Most peasants stuck with a few basic foods for reasons of convenience.  Life was busy and tough enough without having to worry about providing a variety of options on the dinner table.  In addition, the problem of contamination was always present.  As I stated in a previous blog post, most bread (especially the bread of the peasantry) was made from rye, which was often contaminated with Ergot.  And while preservation practices were rather sophisticated and successful (especially in the late Middle Ages), the threat of contaminated water, meat, etc. was always looming.  Dysentery, food poisoning and other ailments were always a reality.

Aside from the practical realities that governed the Medieval diet, a number of cultural customs regarding food were also of great importance.  As was common during this time, the Catholic Church enjoyed a great deal of influence over many aspects of Medieval life, and meal time was no exception.  The liturgical calender was littered with a plethora of feast and fast days, each of which dictated what could or could not be consumed.  In most areas, meat was forbidden for approximately 1/4 of the calender year, while all animal products (to include eggs, dairy, meat, etc.) were prohibited during Lent (fish being the only exception).

Dr. Lopez's article goes on to discuss how Medieval meal practices and customs eventually influenced many of the modern world's dinner and holiday practices.  The idea of eating together as a family at a communal table has its roots in Medieval times.

What I find equally fascinating (but is not mentioned in Dr. Lopez's article) is how European culinary practices changed with the discovery of the "New World."  The introduction of corn, potatoes, sugar, tobacco, etc. completely revolutionized the European dining experience.  We cannot underestimate the importance of this reality.  In fact, Europe witnessed a dramatic spike in procreation at the dawn of the discovery of the New World.  Added calories and a diversity of food options certainly contributed to this growth in population.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Funny Kid Videos

I took these videos a few months back so they aren't new.  Just posting them so family and friends can see them.

Breaking News:


Jaxson v. Robot:

Zakary v. Robot:


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Diseases of the Middle Ages

Anyone with even an elementary understanding of the history of the Middle Ages is aware of the fact that disease and sickness was a reality that literally infected the whole of society.  Try as they did, the people of the Middle Ages were ill equipped to combat the various illnesses that perplexed even the brightest of Medieval physicians (if you can even call them that).

We all recognize the fact that Medieval Europe lacked even a basic understanding of many important health and wellness practices.  Simple concepts like hygiene (i.e. washing your hands with soap and water) were only understood by a select few, and even in such cases their understanding would be considered woefully inadequate by today's standards.  These deficiencies were, in most cases, the result of honest ignorance.  How could Medieval society be expected to understand how microorganisms like bacteria and viruses infected the body?

Despite their obvious disadvantage, Medieval practitioners of medicine did their best to diagnose and treat the various mystery illnesses that came their way.  And though we may find their methodology for treating the sick to be barbaric or downright strange, it is important to recognize how Medieval medicine set the tone for future generations.  The following are some of the more bizarre (or "unique") illnesses/diagnoses that many Medieval patients experienced:

1.) "St. Anthony's Fire": At the end of the 10th century, many citizens of the Medieval world (particularly in France and Spain) fell sick to "St. Anthony's Fire," which was an illness that primarily resulted in painful sores that grew on the legs and groin.  It was believed that the only cure was to seek aid from a monastery or church where the blessings of God (along with whatever home remedy that particular church employed) would cure the patient.  In reality, St. Anthony's Fire was Ergot poisoning.  Ergot is a fungus that grows on rye, particularly in wet and cold conditions.  If the rye is not cleaned before it is ground up to make grain, the fungus infects the body, resulting in painful sores on the body.  The reason Medieval patients experienced relief when traveling to churches may be due to the fact that they were no longer eating the infected rye from home.

2.) "The King's Evil":  was a disease in which the patient experienced severe chest pain, along with black masses on their neck and chest area.  It was believed that the disease was the result of either witchcraft or poor blood circulation in the body.  Medieval doctors believed that it was the liver that was responsible for blood circulation, while the heart circulated "vital spirit" (the blood of the soul?).  And since the liver is black, it was believed that the black sores on the neck and chest were evidence of a sick liver. Treatment for this disease was, interestingly enough, for the patient to receive the touch of royalty.  But since a king/queen couldn't be expected to touch every sick peasant, royal leaders elected to touch special coins that had been blessed by the hand of the crown.  The sick would then place the coins on their neck and chest, which would supposedly cure the patient in a matter of hours.

Reality is that "The King's Evil" was a rare form of tuberculosis called scrofula, which infects the lymph notes of the human neck resulting in black masses.  Mortality for this disease was estimated in some countries at 40%.

3.) "The Ague": was a disease common in the low-lying areas of Europe and eastern England. The disease resulted in fever, chills, profuse sweating and severe headaches.  "The Ague" was believed to be the result of "bad air" and an imbalance of the "four humors" of the body (i.e. blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile).  Treatment included everything from bloodletting (cutting and bleeding the patient) to an assortment of strange herbs and potions.

Truth of the matter is "The Ague" was nothing more than malaria carried by the mosquito. Obviously the Medieval world was not aware of how insects could transmit disease to humans.

4.) "The Bloody Flux": was another illness believed to be the result of imbalance of the four humors.  Interestingly enough, it was also believed that the "Bloody Flux" was a possible punishment from God for adultery and other sexual impropriety.  "The Bloody Flux" resulted in diarrhea, dehydration, bloody stools, and stomach cramps.  In reality, "The Bloody Flux" was nothing more than Dysentery, which was caused by contaminated food and poor hygiene.

5.) "Water Elf Disease": was an illness that resulted in painful red sores on the body, watery eyes, itchy skin and severe fatigue.  It was believed that "Water Elf Disease" was the result of witchcraft, particularly a witch's spell.  Treatment for the disease was usually a combination of various herbs and other local potions.  In addition, it was believed that chanting certain songs could remove the curse of the witch who had made the patient sick.  The most common song went something like this:
I have bound on the wounds the best of war bandages, so the wounds neither burn nor burst, nor go further, nor spread, nor jump, nor the wounds increase, nor sores deepen.  By may he himself keep in a healthy way.  May it not ache you more than it aches earth in ear.  May earth bear on you with all her might and main.
Medical practitioners today, along with most kindergarten children, know this illness quite well. Today we call it chickenpox or the measles.

And though we may laugh at the silly names, remedies and alleged causes that the Medieval world gave to these (and many other) medical conditions, remember that this was no game for those who lived it.  In their minds, witches were real, spells had actual power, the divine touch of a king could heal, and sometimes God was simply manifesting his wrath.  The Medieval world was no pick nick.
Maybe all the Renaissance Festival nerds and wannabe knights who pretend to be great Medieval warriors would do well to remember this.  The next time you get sick, just bleed yourself, have your buddy give you a spell, or ingest some strange potion.  Don't dare go to a hospital!

David Barton as a U.S. Senator???

Yeah, you heard me right. America's favorite pseudo-historian and Glenn Beck's nearest and dearest doomsday buddy is seriously considering making a run for the U.S. Senate.

According to insiders close to Barton, Tea Party officials met with the Texas Looney Tune to discuss a potential run against John Cornyn in the Texas Republican Primary. A Facebook group with nearly 1,500 supporters has also been created to help convince Barton to take up the challenge.

If you have followed my humble little blog at all, you are more than aware of the fact that I strongly detest Barton's work as a self-proclaimed American "historian."  Simply put, David Barton is to history what Tim Tebow is to being a quarterback: nice guys with good morals who suck at their respective jobs.

Let me be clear on one thing: I do not think that David Barton is a bad man.  From everything I have seen and learned about him I believe that Barton is probably a very good man.  The problem, however, is that Barton is woefully ignorant of the basic realities of American history.  Barton has made a career out of twisting the truth for political reasons, and as a result, I believe he would be a serious liability as a U.S. Senator.

Historian John Fea sums up the problem of Barton becoming a U.S. Senator best at his personal blog. Fea quotes from the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Gordon Wood, who stated, "If someone wants to use the past to change the world, he should forego a career as a historian and run for public office."  Amen to that!  Perhaps Barton is a better fit for the fiasco that is Congress than I originally thought!  If you want a man who can twist the truth without batting an eye then Barton is your man!

The following are a few of the many David Barton (and Glenn Beck) "highlights" that I have commented on over the past few years:

Barton on why the Lincoln movie was a fraud...even though he never actually saw it: Link
Barton lying about George Washington and the history of the Valley Forge prayer story: Link
Barton's nonsense about the "Black Robe Regiment" (which, incidentally, went nowhere): Link
Barton's idiotic belief that Thomas Jefferson supported prayer in public schools: Link
Barton confronted and destroyed by Chris Rodda: Link

Stay tuned, I'm sure there will be many more "hits" to come!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Book Review: The God Who Weeps

The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. By Terryl and Fiona Givens (Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak, 2012. Pp. 160).

In recent years, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) has experienced a sudden exodus from the faith on the part of many of its rank-and-file members.  Thanks in large part to the Internet, many Mormons have discovered a number of historical and theological issues that has caused a great deal of doubt and concern for many Latter-day Saints, who originally believed that their faith was impenetrable to such things.  As former Church Historian Marlin K. Jensen recently stated:
Maybe since Kirtland, we've never had a period of -- I'll call it apostasy, like we're having now...It's a different generation.  There's no sense kidding ourselves, we just need to be very upfront with [members] and tell them what we know and give answers to what we have and call on their faith like we all do for things we don't understand.
This crisis of faith, that has already claimed a number of former members in its wake, has gone relatively unopposed.  Little has been said (other than the traditional "don't you dare doubt" or "just pray about it" responses) to help remedy the situation.

That is until now.

In their book, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life, the husband and wife team of Terryl and Fiona Givens offer us a concise but extraordinarily eloquent overview of the profoundly complex yet extremely basic theology that is found within Mormonism, and how said theology answers some of life's most difficult to answer questions. The Givens challenge many of the preconceived ideas held by both Christian and Mormon supporters and detractors by resting their thesis on the idea that God's strength and ultimate sovereignty rest in his infinite loving vulnerability rather than his divine dictatorial supremacy.  In consequence, The God Who Weeps reveals a god who mourns for his creations when they sin, as opposed to a god who arbitrarily consigns the sinner to an eternity in hell.

The book is essentially divided into five sections (chapters) that each emphasize a separate and unique concept that the Givens believe are both unique to the Mormon faith and worthy of our further inquiry.  In the first chapter (His Heart Is Set Upon Us), Terryl and Fiona Givens develop their concept of the "weeping God" and how such a deity is both worthy of our devotion and fully capable of coming to our aid:
There could be nothing in this universe, or in any possible universe, more perfectly good, absolutely beautiful, worthy of adoration, and deserving of emulation, than this God of love and kindness and vulnerability. That is why a gesture of belief in His direction, a decision to acknowledge His virtues as the paramount qualities of a divided universe, is a response to the best in us, the best and noblest of which the human soul is capable. But a God without passions would engender in our hearts neither love nor interest. In the vision of Enoch, we find ourselves drawn to a God who prevents all the pain He can, assumes all the suffering He can, and weeps over the misery He can neither prevent nor assume.
The Givens further develop the idea of the "suffering" or "weeping" god by pointing to the writings of early church patriarchs like St. Augustine and Origen, along with modern writers such as C.S. Lewis and Emily Dickinson, all of whom insinuated, in one way or another, that God's strength and ultimate sovereignty rested in his love and vulnerability for mankind as opposed to his supremacy as some sort of cold and distant dictator.

In the second chapter (Man Was in the Beginning With God), the Givens focus on a point of Mormon doctrine (pre-existence) that they believe is dramatically underplayed by both critics and supporters of Mormonism.  It is worth nothing that the majority of this chapter's material is drawn from Terryl Givens' other book, When Souls Had Wings, which is almost exclusively devoted to the concept of pre-mortal existence and it's development in Western thought.  In this chapter, the Givens turn to the writings of the ancient Greeks, Babylonians Jews, etc. who all maintained an interest in the idea of a pre-mortal world/existence.

In the third chapter (Men Are That They Might Have Joy), the books highlights the importance of human choice and how said choices can determine our happiness and illustrate what we as individuals value most in our mortal lives:
Whatever sense we make of this world, whatever value we place upon our lives and relationships, whatever meaning we ultimately give to our joys and agonies, must necessarily be a gesture of faith. Whether we consider the whole a product of impersonal cosmic forces, a malevolent deity, or a benevolent god, depends not on the evidence, but on what we choose, deliberately and consciously, to conclude from that evidence.  To our minds, this fork in our mental road is very much the point.  It is, in fact, inescapable. 
In other words, the Givens remind us that joy, faith and hope really are in the eye of the beholder. They do so by pointing to biblical figures like Adam and Eve, and the apparent quandary they experienced while in the Garden of Eden.  Partaking of the fruit meant introducing pain, hurt, grief and despair into the world, but it also brought about joy, happiness, love and charity.  In short, life becomes a quest to put off the "natural man" and experience for ourselves (and through our own choices) the joy that is available to all.

Chapter 4 (None of Them Is Lost) is, in my opinion, the most important chapter of this work.  In this chapter, the Givens challenge many of the erroneous cultural beliefs that Mormons have with regards to salvation. Too often members of the Mormon faith (and Christians in general) make the incorrect assumption that salvation will only be attained by a select few and that heaven will be a relatively underpopulated place while hell will be full to the brim.  This is nonsense.  As the Givens point out:
God is personally invested in shepherding His children through the process of mortality and beyond; His desires are set upon the whole human family, not upon a select few. He is not predisposed to just the fast learners, the naturally inclined, or the morally gifted. The project of human advancement that God designed offers a hope to the entire human race.  It is universal in its appeal and reach alike. This, however, has not been the traditional view.
We are not in some contest to rack up points. We will not someday wait with bated breath to see what prize or pain is meted out by a great dispenser of trophies. We cannot so trivialize life that we make of it a coliseum where we wage moral combat like spiritual gladiators, for a presiding Authority on high to save or damn according to our performance. Where would be the purpose in all that? He might take the measure of our souls at any moment and deal with us accordingly, saving Himself, not to mention us, a great deal of trouble. How much more meaningful is a life designed for spiritual formation, rather than spiritual elevation.
In other words, heaven isn't a prize to be won but a state of being to be attained.  The value of this concept is infinitely important for Mormons and the world as a whole.  God wants to save everyone, not just a few.  As a result, Mormonism is NOT a small tent faith of exclusivity but is a big tent UNIVERSALIST religion.  As Joseph Smith himself stated, "God will fetter out every individual soul."

In their 5th and final section (Participants in the Divine Nature), the Givens essentially sum it all up and illustrate the Mormon belief that God wants the best for all of his children.  As a result, we can, through our own merits and God's grace, achieve a state of full happiness and joy, surrounded by those we love most.  In short, the Givens suggest that heaven will be, for those who choose it, a continuation of all the special relationships we experience here on Earth, except that the joy can be infinite.  Though our own vulnerability, we too can become "joint heirs" with Christ.

In summation, The God Who Weeps is a welcomed and invaluable response to those who believe that Mormonism has nothing to offer the modern world.  It presents a theology that is fully developed, complex and worthy of scholarly inquiry and soul-searching meditation.  The authors of this work demonstrate an exceptional ability to sift through centuries of material to find the perfectly pitched quotations and evidence needed to prove their argument.  The depth and breadth of their knowledge of world literature, theology, philosophy, art and history is astounding, and serves to support their thesis that Mormonism is a deeply rich and fulfilling religion with a great deal to offer the world.  All current and former Mormons would do well to realize that trivializing the faith, or reducing the argument to the smallest possible denominator, does little to help increase our understanding.  There is nothing to be gained from picking fun at the low-lying fruit of Mormonism As Terryl Givens states:
Mormons have largely left others to frame the theological discussion.  In opting to emphasize Mormon culture over Mormon theology, Mormons have too often left the media and ministers free to select most esoteric and idiosyncratic for ridicule.  So jibes about Kolob and magic underwear usurp serious engagement, much as public knowledge about the Amish is confined to a two-dimensional caricature involving a horse and buggy.  But members of a faith community should recognize themselves in any fair depiction.  And it is the fundamentals of Mormonism that should ground any debate worth having about Mormon beliefs or Mormon membership in the Christian community.
And for the Givens these fundamentals are:

1.) God's strength is found in his vulnerability.  His Heart is set upon us.
2.) We are eternal in nature and were in the beginning with God.
3.) We can, through our own choices and God's eternal grace, have eternal joy.
4.) Salvation is universal and open to all who want it.  Mormonism is Universalist in nature.
5.) We can be participants and joint heirs in the divine nature.

In a mere 160 pages, The God Who Weeps does what no other book has been able to: present to the world a concise yet complex narrative of why Mormonism matters.  My advise to all who read this is simple: if you love being a Mormon and have never questioned your faith, read this book.  It will give you a better understanding of those who do.  If you are a Mormon and have doubts or have already left the faith, read this book.  It may give you a better understanding/perspective of why Mormonism matters and the value that can be had by living the faith.  If you are not a Mormon and want to know what the faith is all about, read this book.  It will give you a better understanding of why Mormonism is a unique and valuable faith that is worthy of more than both its members and critics have given it.

Walter Raleigh Loses His Head

On this day, 395 years ago, the great English explorer, writer, governor (and conspirator?) Sir Walter Raleigh was put do death.  He was beheaded on charges of treason, due to his alleged involvement in a plot to remove King James I from the English Throne.

Raleigh is a fascinating character to say the least. As an explorer, his role in charting a large portion of what is now the eastern coastal lands of the United States (particularly Virginia and the Carolinas) catapulted him to fame.  His achievements (or perhaps better put his charisma) also drew the attention of one Queen Elizabeth I, who was, on more than one occasion, quite taken with the young Englishman's  prowess as an explorer and writer. Because of these accomplishments, Queen Elizabeth rewarded Raleigh with an assortment of titles, honors, lands, and government positions, all of which elevated Raleigh to the highest echelon of English society.

Despite these achievements, Raleigh found it difficult to live a life that was completely free of reproach.  While serving in the English Parliament, Raleigh was also secretly married to "Bess" Throckmorton, one of the Queen's Lady's-in-Waiting (personal assistant).  This affair, which was punishable by death, infuriated the Queen, who ordered Raleigh to be arrested.

But the affair would not spell the end for Raleigh.  His charisma and talent were simply too much for the English Crown to ignore.  As a result, Raleigh was freed from prison and sent on an unsanctioned expedition to attack and pillage the Spanish coast; a skill that Raleigh had perfected during his exploring days in the "New World."  After returning with a shipload of Spanish jewels and goods, Raleigh's previous improprieties were, needless to say, forgotten.

Having already escaped one brush with royal justice and the potential loss of his life, one would think that Raleigh would choose to live a more "virtuous" life.  That wasn't his style.  After the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, Raleigh's stock began to drop.  Gone were the days when he could enjoy having the ear of the Crown (Raleigh's heyday was undoubtedly during the Elizabethan years).

Queen Elizabeth's successor, James I, was, in many respects, like his predecessor.  He was intelligent, thoughtful and determined to see England forward to a new era.  Unlike Elizabeth, however, James was far more militant in his application of policies to ensure England's prosperity. For example, when it came to religious matters, Elizabeth adopted a hands off approach, whereas James was more "passionate."  James helped to push Parliament into passing the Popish Recusants Act (which required citizens to swear an oath of allegiance to the Church of England and against the Catholic Pope), along with laws that enforced strict conformity from emerging Puritans.  James also advocated for laws against witchcraft, which became a bit of a personal obsession of his at least during the early years of his reign.  And, of course, no discussion of James and religion could be complete without at least a brief mention of his role in the Hampton Conference, which eventually led to the completion of a new translation of the Christian canon, known today as the King James Bible.  All of this is relevant to Walter Raleigh because it helps to illustrate the alleged reasons he chose to rebel (I say alleged because some historians argue that Raleigh was unjustly accused and murdered with little to no evidence. With recent historical discoveries, however, I think it is more than evident that Raleigh was indeed involved in the plot to remove James from the throne).

Walter Raleigh was not a religious enthusiast.  Sure, he jumped through the appropriate hoops in order to keep up social graces but he did so for political necessity as opposed to any internal desire to please the divine.  In many respects, Queen Elizabeth and Walter Raleigh were birds of a feather.  They knew religion was important and both advocated for English sovereignty from Catholic authority.  But this was primarily motivated out of political expediency than anything else. In their minds it just made good sense and was in England's best interests.

When James ascended to the throne and began enacting newer and tougher laws, Raleigh must have been upset. Raleigh's sentiments in this regard are best illustrated in his famous poem "The Lie":

Say to the court, it glows 
And shines like rotten wood; 
Say to the church, it shows 
Whats good, and doth no good: 
Of church and court reply, 
Then give them both the lie. 

Tell men of high condition, 
That manage the estate, 
Their purpose is ambition, 
Their practice only hate: 
And if they once reply, 
Then give them all the lie.

As stated earlier, Raleigh's involvement in what became known as the Main Plot was a source of debate among historians for centuries. Recent discoveries, however, have all but proven Raleigh's role in the plot.  Historical records reveal that while serving as Governor of Jersey, Sir Walter Raleigh, along with co-conspirators Henry Brooke and Lord Cobham, had secretly made deals with the Spanish Crown (who financed their endeavors) to create sedition (particularly among the ranks of those who were monetarily and religiously disenfranchised by James' ascension to the throne), which would ultimately force James to abdicate the throne.

The plot failed when Brooke's brother implicated those involved.  Raleigh and others were imprisoned and the plot was squashed. Several years later, on October 29, 1618, Sir Walter Raleigh, the great English poet, explorer and statesmen, found his neck on the chopping stump. After requesting to be able to see and handle the axe that would claim his life, Raleigh's final words were (allegedly): "This is a sharp medicine, but it is a physician for all diseases and all miseries."

Raleigh's contributions and legacy were polarizing in his day, but with time they have become a source of pride for Englishmen (and Americans).  The capitol city of North Carolina (the land he himself explored) is his namesake and he has been voted #41 out of 100 in a recent poll of the 100 most influential Britons in history (King James I was #76).  Raleigh was the epitome of an explorer and a poet at heart, as one of his final poems helps to capture:

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation.
My gown of glory, hopes, true gauge;
And this I'll take my pilgrimage.

Blood must be my body's balmer;
No other balm will there be given;
Whilst my soul, like quiet palmer,
Travelleth towards the land of heaven.

Over the silver mountains,
Where spring the nectar fountains;
There will I kiss
The bowl of bliss;
And drink mine everlasting fill
Upon every milken hill.
My soul will be a-dry before;
But, after, it will thirst no more.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Why We Must Sue Native Americans This Columbus Day

521 years ago, Cristóbal Colón stepped off his ship and onto the shore of San Salvador (Bahamas). This first step, which was arguably the most influential "first step" in world history (rivaled only by Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon), inaugurated a new era of European settlement and discovery in what became known as the "New World." It also sparked a debate that has, for good and for bad, continued with us for over half a millennia.

The paradox that is Christopher Columbus is one of the most polarizing and puzzling in all the annals of human history.  He is loved and hated by millions across the world who hail him as both a brave explorer and a cruel tyrant.  Speaking for myself, I have, over the years, had my own struggles when trying to reconcile Columbus with my own interpretation of what is right and wrong (you can read a couple of older posts here and here).  But regardless of how we may feel about Columbus, the truth of the matter is that none of us will ever truly be able to know or understand the man who has become synonymous with controversy.

Over the past five centuries, Christopher Columbus has been accused of a plethora of crimes ranging from theft to genocide.  Columbus' prowess as a navigator was matched only by his ineptitude as a governor.  And make no mistake; Columbus' inability to effectively lead is a catalyst for much of the controversy that surrounds his legacy today.

But there is a far deeper and uglier controversy that has gone overlooked these past five centuries. It's a controversy that has evolved to become a corporate conspiracy involving billions of dollars in revenue, at the cost of millions who have died horrible deaths.  It is a conspiracy that ushered in centuries of slavery and addiction and despite our best efforts, has no apparent end in sight.  

In his journal entry of October 15, 1492, Columbus wrote:
We met a man in a canoe going from Santa Maria to Fernandina; he had with him a piece of bread whice the natives make, as big as one's fist, a calabash of water . . . and some dried leaves which are in high value among them, for a quantity of it was brought to me at San Salvador (my emphasis).
A few days later a landing party Columbus had sent ashore returned to report that the natives "drank the smoke" of those curious dried leaves. This was astonishing to the Europeans who had never seen anything like smoking before. For a long time they were puzzled and disgusted by this strange habit. But soon they, too, would be drinking smoke from those leaves, and spreading the plant and the habit of smoking it all over the known world.

Yes, it was the innocent Native Americans (whom Columbus later pillaged and subjugated to the yoke of slavery), who first introduced tobacco to the European world, inaugurating an era of chemical dependency and lung cancer.  For future generations of European settlers, it was tobacco that became the dominant cash crop that sustained these communities, many of which employed imported Black slaves to plant and care for this new found addiction.

And, as we are all aware, tobacco has remained to this day, evolving to become a multi-billion dollar a year industry.  Thanks to the Native Americans, more than 5 million Europeans die every year due to tobacco use.  Tobacco-related illnesses cost the American economy, on average, $193 billion a year ($97 billion in lost productivity plus $96 billion in health care expenditures). Yes, thanks to these first Native Americans, who clearly bamboozled an innocent and naive Christopher Columbus, we today must suffer from the physical, financial and psychological impact caused by their poisonous product!

It is for this reason that I call for an unprecedented class action lawsuit against all Native American people.  If they would have only kept those dried leaves to themselves instead of sharing them with our guiltless ancestors, we today would not have to suffer from the bondage that is tobacco addiction! Clearly the fault rests with them and compensation for this atrocity is more than overdue.

Let's Keep It Real Now

Ok, hopefully my tongue-in-cheek commentary won't be taken literally by too many people.  I'm not advocating that we sue Native Americans, nor do I blame them for the millions of cases of tobacco addiction that have plagued humanity over the centuries.  But I do hope that this ridiculous argument will help to highlight some of the nuances of the history of "first contact" between Columbus and the native people of the "New World."

It is both easy and convenient for us to place all of the blame for the atrocities committed against Native Americans at the feet of Christopher Columbus.  After all, he's a PERFECT scapegoat. Like any significant figure from history, Christopher Columbus was a complicated character.  He exudes characteristics that are both admirable and appalling.  As stated earlier, Columbus' prowess as a navigator is only matched by his ineptitude as a governor.  He is both fire and ice; saint and sinner; hero and villain.  The hero who "discovered" a new world and ushered in an era of exploration and colonization was eventually destined to die as a poor and destitute scoundrel whose legacy was never fully understood by his contemporaries or by subsequent generations of scholars who both revere and rebuke his accomplishments.    
Much of the problem with understanding Columbus' true nature and legacy has to do with the historical sin of "presentism."  To project modern day standards of morality and conduct onto those of the past is akin to contaminating a crime scene.  Our desire to play Monday Morning Quarterback with Columbus' legacy actually does more to distort true history than anything.  In the same way that each individual is to blame for his/her own tobacco addiction, we must judge Columbus by the standards of his time and according to the world as he saw it.

Columbus was a religious fanatic.  He believed that the end times were just around the corner and that it was his job (and the job of all other good Christians) to vehemently defend the Kingdom of God.  His quest for a new route to the "Indies," which he effectively sold to Queen Isabella, was also motivated by his desire to finance a new crusade to recapture Jerusalem from the infidel Muslims (who had just been kicked out of Spain a year earlier).  Columbus was also a man who happened to be in the right place at the right time.  The pious Spanish crown was eager to take advantage of his zeal, and a newly-invented Gutenberg press was more than ready to spread his story far and wide.

Columbus represents the end of Medieval thinking rather than the dawn of early Enlightenment thinking.  His mystical world must be understood through the lens of his quest to do God's will more than anything else.  And make no mistake, Columbus believed he was on a mission from God.  As he stated in a letter to Queen Isabella:
With a hand that could be felt...the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies, and he opened my will to desire to accomplish the project. This was the fire that burned within me when I came to visit Your Highnesses...Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also the Holy Spirit who encouraged me with a radiance of marvelous illumination from his sacred Scriptures.
During his 3rd and 4th voyages, Columbus composed his "Book of Prophesies" which he believed proved his role as "Christ-bearer."  Many historians dismiss these writings as proof of Columbus' insanity but such a dismissal is irresponsible.  These writings help us to better understand the man v. the cultural myth. As Historian De Mar Jensen points out:
The Book of Prophecies was not the ranting of a sick mind. It was the work of a religious man who was not afraid to put his ideas into action and his own life into jeopardy. Columbus knew the scriptures as well as he knew the sea, and he saw a connection between the two. The central theme of his book was that God had sketched in the Bible His plan for the salvation of all mankind and that he, Columbus, was playing a role assigned to him in that plan.
In the book’s first section, Columbus presents a collection of sixty-five psalms that deal with his two major themes: the salvation of the world and the rebuilding of Zion. He calls special attention to several verses in the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zephaniah that speak of the Gentiles as a people chosen to inherit the Holy Temple, their conversion in the last days, and the gathering to Zion. The inheritance of the Gentiles is further cited from St. Augustine, whose quoting of Ps. 22:27 is paraphrased by Columbus as “All the ends of the earth and all the islands shall be converted to the Lord.” After quoting Matt. 24:14, Columbus comments that the gospel has been preached to three parts of the earth (Asia, Africa, and Europe) and now must be preached to the fourth part. The second section of the Book of Prophecies concerns prophecies already fulfilled. The theme is the ancient greatness of Jerusalem and its subsequent fall.
In the next section, Columbus deals with prophecies of the present and near future, emphasizing the theme of salvation for all nations. Isaiah is cited frequently. Columbus then furnishes several texts from the New Testament: Matthew 2:1–2; 8:11 [Matt. 2:1–2; Matt. 8:11]; Luke 1:48; and notably John 10:16, “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”
The final section of the book deals with prophecies of the last days, which Columbus introduces by calling attention to Jeremiah 25 [Jer. 25], where the prophet predicts the restoration of Jerusalem prior to the Final Judgment. Finally, he quotes twenty-six scriptures that refer to the islands of the sea and their part in the last days.
With this construct in mind, I believe we can better understand why Columbus was the way he was and why both his successes and failures carried with them so much weight.  Whenever you invoke the name of God and hold yourself up as one of His chosen servants, you carry with it serious and long-lasting repercussions.  It also help us to see that painting Columbus with wide (and modern day) brush strokes is about as idiotic as blaming Native Americans for tobacco addiction.

I for one am grateful for the legacy and contributions of Cristóbal Colón, for they remind us that the line between success and failure, hero and villain is thinner than we think.  Columbus Day serves to remind me that judgement really is in the eye of the beholder.  It is easy (and perhaps in some instances appropriate) to cast stones at Columbus for his mistakes, but in the end, it was he who had the foresight to cross a frontier that all others saw as too daunting.  Such is the case with heroes.  Heroes receive all the praise and acclaim when they make the last second shot, but also reap all the blame when they miss; a reality that Columbus understood all too well.

The legacy of Christopher Columbus will probably always be shrouded in controversy and mystery. In no way is my humble little blog post going to fix that.  But I do hope it helps to illustrate that the true history of Columbus is found in the nuances of history as opposed to the grandiose claims of heroism and villainy.  To throw out blanket claims of genocide, racism and brutality is akin to blaming Native Americans for all tobacco addiction.  It's our luxury to analyze the man with 500+ years of history at our disposal, but in the end, it was Columbus who had the vision to venture out into the undiscovered country. As Columbus himself stated:
You cannot discover a new world unless you first have the courage to lose sight of the shore.