Sunday, May 30, 2010

On Memorial Day We Might Pause to Remember General Robert E. Lee

There are and have been few like him.

It occurred to me as I watched this video, sent by a friend as appropriate for Memorial day, that General Lee is well worth remembering on that day.

It is said here that
Between battles, Union and Confederate troops showed little animosity toward one another. Union soldiers often traded coffee for southern-grown tobacco. From behind earthworks, bands often played concerts, including the other side's favorite songs. On occasion, Confederate and Union bands would join in concerts when camped close together. A Union band gave a concert for the troops stationed at Fredericksburg, VA. After a playing a few favorite selections of the troops, a voice called from the Confederate positions across the river, "Now give us some of ours." The band played "Dixie," a favorite of both sides, "My Maryland" and "Bonnie Blue Flag."
That sort of thing makes such a remembrance seem even more appropriate. Last year, I wrote what follows to commemorate his death on October 12, 1870.

General Robert E. Lee died one hundred and thirty-nine years ago on October 12, 1870 (now celebrated as Columbus Day) at the age of sixty-three. We, as a nation, have done with heroes and few remember him. The anniversary of his death will likely go generally unnoticed and unremarked upon. Yet he inspired a nation, or at least a fledgling nation, the Confederate States of America. Those who reminisce about him do so because of his devotion to honor, duty, integrity, for his compassion and for his wisdom. He had those now sadly rare qualities in rare abundance; although I (obviously) never knew him, I miss the likes of him today. When I read a news story dealing with our congresscritters, our president, or His administration, I scratch my balding head and wonder what happened.

The anniversary of General Lee's death having been called to my attention by an article in the Canada Free Press, I read again Rod Cragg's Robert E. Lee, General, A commitment to Valor. I could not find a link to the book on Amazon or even on Google, but somehow I had bought a copy at a used book store in rural Panamá. This article is largely based on it. This song is about General Lee's life.

General Lee's father, "Light-Horse Harry Lee," distinguished himself as a cavalry commander in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1829, Robert E. Lee eventually rose to the rank of Colonel as commander of the U.S. Army's Texas Department in 1860. Although he considered slavery a "moral and political evil," he declined command of U.S. forces when Virginia seceded and resigned from the U.S. Army to take command of Virginia's military forces. He felt that it was his duty to do so; his sense of honor compelled him. "I did only what my duty demanded; I could have taken no other course without dishonor." He valued honor highly, and because of it chose to fight on behalf of his home, Virginia, rather than for the Union. On April 20, 1861, he wrote to the Secretary of War:
Sir, I have the honor to tender my resignation of my command as colonel of the First Regiment of Cavalry.
Very respectfully your obedient servant,
R.E. Lee, Colonel First Cavalry
In a letter to General Winfield Scott, Commanding, United States Army, Lee wrote on 20 April 1861,
General: Since my interview with you on the 18th instant, I have felt that I ought not longer retain my commission in the army. I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once but for the struggle it has caused me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted the best years of my life, and all the ability I possessed.
During the whole of that time -- more than a quarter of a century-- I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors, and the most cordial friendship from my comrades. To no one, General, have I been as much indebted as to yourself, for uniform kindness and consideration, and it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation. I shall carry to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, and your name and fame will always be dear to me.
Save in defence of my native state, I never desire again to draw my sword. Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the continuance of your happiness and prosperity, and believe me, most truly yours,
R.E. Lee.
When a substantial number of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy left to join the Confederate Army at the outbreak of the war, a special retreat ceremony was held at West Point, and Dixie is said to have been played in their honor.

Following many military successes and some defeats, Lee was promoted to General-in-Chief of all Confederate armies in 1865. Colonel Ives, an officer who served on General Lee's staff, wrote "His name might be audacity. He will take more desperate chances, and take them quicker than any other general in this country, North or South." Another wrote, "His soldiers reverenced him and had unbounded confidence in him, for he shared all their privations."

General Lee was compelled to surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Virginia on April 9, 1865. A Northern officer who observed him at Appomattox wrote, "In manner, [Lee was] grave and dignified. . . which gave him the air of a man who kept his pride to the last." A private soldier who had served with General Lee throughout the war wrote,
As Lee came riding alone into Richmond [after his surrender], his old followers immediately recognized him and followed him to his home where, with uncovered heads, they saw him to his door. Then they silently dispersed.
Later that year, he wrote to an English correspondent who had offered a place to escape the destruction of Virginia following the war. He said, "I cannot desert my native state in the hour of her adversity. I must abide by her fortunes, and share her fate."

There are many quotations from General Lee. Here is one of my favorites: "Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or to keep one; the man who requires you to do is dearly purchased at a sacrifice."

Here is the text of General Orders No. 9, HQ, Army of Northern Virginia, Appomattox Courthouse, April 10, 1865:
After four years' arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.
I need not tell the survivors of so many hard fought battles who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to this result from no distrust of them, but feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss which would have attended the continuation of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God may extend to you His blessing and protection. With an increasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration of myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.
Robert E. Lee, General
To compare General Lee with any living person of note would be an exercise in futility. He was a man perhaps unique to his time, no politician, and the world in which General Lee lived was vastly different from the world in which we now live. Any comparison would be as pointless as it would be futile. Still, General Lee's sense of honor and its necessary adjunct, integrity, stand out as remarkable, and both qualities are sadly missing from many of those who now strut on the world stage. We should perhaps spend a moment to reflect on the character of General Lee in evaluating those who now have become our leaders; I am afraid that nearly all of them would suffer from the comparison.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Modest Proposal to Pomote Domestic Tranquility

Published on Opinion Forum on May 20, 2010

Huff and Puff and down fall the houses of falsehood

Here is a truly fascinating article from Huffington Post by Jim Taylor, PhD in psychology and lecturer at the University of San Francisco, a well known bastion of unbiased intellectual thought. Mr.* Taylor complains that the sources of information nowadays are too many, too prolific and too motivated by politics and/or ideology, and that we lack the resources, intellectual and otherwise, to distinguish "facts" from "falsehoods" and from opinion. President Obama recently said much the same. They are, of course, right correct.

Mr. Taylor directs his message not to those whose "facts" are incongruent with his.
The reality is that, for these extremists, when ideology comes face to face with the facts, facts are the victim. You need look no further than the birthers, truthers, death panelists, and Sarah Palin devotees to see the profound disconnect from fact for those who hold extreme ideologies.
Rather, his message is directed toward the reasonable folk who agree with him.
This post is directed toward to [sic] everyone else, those who, whether a Republican or Democrat, Christian, Jew, Muslim, or atheist, environmentalist or industrialist, socialist or capitalist, are reasonable people who believe that truth should trump ideology, who are interested in separating fact from fiction, and want to know both sides of an issue before forming thoughtful and well-supported opinions. Just look at the health-care legislation. Decent people can disagree about what is the best health care system for America, but that determination should be based on facts, such as how many people will be covered and what will the costs be, not ideology or prostituting to special interests.
Truth is good; untruths are bad; distortions, spins and misinformation are bad. Gosh Darn! We agree.

However, Mr. Taylor's prescription (in this context, perhaps I should accord him the honorific "Doctor") is as follows:
The federal government should create a Department of Information whose responsibility it is to determine the facts behind any decision that confronts our country. I know what you're thinking: This sounds like something that belongs in a totalitarian regime. But the reality is that someone has to decide on what is factual and what is not. So who can we trust to give us the most accurate information available? Big Business? Traditional media? The blogosphere? I certainly wouldn't trust any of them.
Though our government is far from perfect, it does exist, at least in theory, to serve the best interests of the American people. That's more than can be said for any other influences in our society; everyone else has a self-serving agenda. And our government already decides what is factual in many areas, whether the Office of Management and Budget deciding how much the health-care legislation will cost, the Federal Reserve describing the state of our economy, or even the decisions handed down by Supreme Court (though, interestingly, they are called opinions not facts). I know, budget estimates are often wrong, the Fed has made glaring economic-policy mistakes, and the Supreme Court has made some lousy decisions, but those mistakes may be more a reflection of the complexities of life and honest disagreement on ambiguous issues rather on than intentional misinformation.
Here's the next part of my proposal. Anytime there is a factual dispute, the Department of Information would render a decision on what the facts are. Those parties who come out on the short end of those decisions would not be allowed to use their "facts" any longer (just like having potentially dangerous drugs or products taken off the shelf). If they do, there would be fines levied to punish the transgressors. This system would not only make clear what the facts are and empower those who want the facts to be known, but it would also discredit the lunatic fringe and reduce the influence of their views on the majority of people.
Now that's a stupendous idea, despite that ratty old Constitution written by a bunch of long dead obscenely rich white male jerks (please excuse the redundancy) obviously cursed with an overabundance of Neanderthal genes! It should be tossed into an (ecologically sound) trash bin. Should it fly (and Mr. Taylor acknowledges that it might not -- but then, scientists were once said to know that a bumblebee couldn't fly), anyone who advocates that 2 + 2 = 6, that the Germans and Japanese were the bad guys and the United States and Great Britain were the good guys during the Second World War, that Arizona's Jim Crow immigration law is reasonable and constitutional or that under the Health Control Law costs are likely to rise, medical care to suffer and/or that the old farts might get the short end of the stick – being in all cases clearly misguided, politically and/or ideologically suspect wrong – would have to shut up or be punished by fines. Big fines, I hope. Perhaps Huff and Puff and Daily It's So Kos I Say So should get some of the fine proceeds. That will show those damn Fascist ideologues on the right. If only King George Bush II the Perverse or Prince Cheney the Unspeakable had thought of this and implemented it! But then President Bush's faith-based initiatives were bad and President Obama's faith-based initiatives are good. Maybe there is an ideological difference. Or maybe President Obama is the physical embodiment of faith.

What are facts, anyway? Obviously, it a true fact that man made global warming is happening and that the consequences will be draconian unless we cease spewing toxic CO2 into the atmosphere – now, Damnit! Saint Al the Gored is correct, there is no legitimate scientific dispute and civilization as we know it will fall into oblivion if he can't buy another mansion or jet aircraft out of the (non) profits from cap and trade transactions. Once upon a time, more physicians preferred camels to any other, well, I suppose, cigarette.

Back when the Health Control Law was passed and signed, and only some of Santa Claus' elves (and maybe Rudolph) at the North Pole had read and understood it, there were no "facts;" only opinions based, quite likely, on the same reliable sources as those upon which Attorney General Holder relied in criticizing the new Arizona immigration statute – television and newspaper reports by folks who hadn't bothered to read it either and who, I might suggest, were among the ideologically blessed. Responsible officials can't be bothered with the trash spouted by those of impure ideology or worse. Get thee behind me, Satan, Fox, Beck, Palin, Rush et al! Make way for The New York Times and MSNBC! Quick! Before they die.

Still, if there were to be an official governmental arbitrator of what is fact and what is falsehood, it would greatly simplify life. The entire problem of separating the wheat from the chaff would be pushed off on someone else and hidden behind one of Douglas Adams' SEP (Somebody Else's Problem) fields where nobody could see it. The SEP field theory was noted in the second (or was it the third?) of Adams' five book Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. I have read that "Adams had a keen interest in the effects of drinking on intelligent people, and discovered that you can get past writers block by drinking vast amounts of alcohol, blacking out, and waking up in a cow field." I don't believe it for a moment and hence it is not a real fact.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that alcohol is inexpensive and there are plenty of cow pastures here, I have implemented a remotely similar strategy at home. We have four dogs. Two of them are too puppy-like and carefree to worry, and I don't like doing it myself. So, I have delegated all responsibility for worry to the two pups who seem best fitted to the task. Getting a lobotomy might serve the same purpose, but might not be covered by my health insurance: it might be covered under the new Health Control Law, but I don't know and need a Department of Information to tell me. Regardless of that, the pup delegation costs absolutely nothing. I have denied them internet access, imbuing them with a degree of purity generally lacking in others. Now, I can be happy and carefree. Something similar would, in my carefree state of mind, be superior to Mr. (Dr.) Taylor's offering, and might also encourage the adoption of unwanted puppies otherwise doomed to execution. That, at least, seems worthwhile.

*When I was in undergraduate school eons ago, people with medical degrees were referred to as Doctor. It was considered snobbish for a PhD to refer to himself as "Doctor" because all of his peers also had that degree. Even lowly instructors and the post-doc teaching assistants who handled small seminars for the Big Man had them. Students absorbed this perception, and Professor Doctor Smith was referred to simply as Mr. Smith. Alas, that was then and this is now, but I still adhere to the notion.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

If There is No Real God, How About an Artificial One?

First Published at Blog Critics on May 4, 2010

We need at least to conduct ourselves as though there were one.

Judeo-Christian religion in the United States is far from dead, but other religions are increasingly viable. In addition to Radical Islam ("eighty percent of the prisoners who 'find faith' in prison convert to Islam,"  generally of the radical kind), Leftism, Multiculturalism, Progressivism and the like seem pervasive. Even the Church of Global Warming, while modestly weakened, remains sufficiently vibrant that absolution may yet be had by buying dispensations. Mere ideologies perhaps, aside from Radical Islam, but their adherents bring religious passion to their dogmas and consider it churlish, if not criminal, to question them. While the Judeo-Christian religions remain vibrant, the others seem not only indignant but overtly hostile; there is at least a chance that they will prevail, if not soon then eventually. As suggested below, that would be unfortunate.

Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and other neat stuff, died in 2001. Although his memorial service was held at the Anglican St. Martin in the Fields Church, he had described himself as a "radical atheist" in order not to be confused with mere Agnostics. Adams did not "believe" in God, nor did he "believe" that there is no God. He was "convinced" that there is no God, and that is rather different. Like Adams, I don't "believe" one way or the other; unlike Adams, I am not "convinced" that there is no God and consider myself an Agnostic rather than an Atheist. I am also partially color blind and can't distinguish various color shades. I understand that most others can do so and I act on the assumption that the various shades exist. I accept that my sensory perceptions as to such matters may be inferior to theirs and also that there is no cure; stuck is stuck. Somewhat analogously, other people may have superior ability to sense the divine than I do; so be it  There is nothing I can do about that either; again, stuck is stuck. Although in some ways I behave as though they may be right, just "going along to get along" wouldn't work because belief cannot be faked; there is also the problem that there are very many divergent perceptions of the divine. It seems unlikely that all of them are right but it is quite possible that all of them are wrong.

In a 1998 speech, Adams propounded a fascinating question, "Is There an Artificial God?" He suggested that there is and cited an example from Bali.

Now, rice is an incredibly efficient food and you can grow an awful lot in a relatively small space, but it's hugely labour intensive and requires a lot of very, very precise co-operation amongst the people there, particularly when you have a large population on a small island needing to bring its harvest in. People now looking at the way in which rice agriculture works in Bali are rather puzzled by it because it is intensely religious. The society of Bali is such that religion permeates every single aspect of it and everybody in that culture is very, very carefully defined in terms of who they are, what their status is and what their role in life is. It's all defined by the church; they have very peculiar calendars and a very peculiar set of customs and rituals, which are precisely defined and, oddly enough, they are fantastically good at being very, very productive with their rice harvest. In the 70s, people came in and noticed that the rice harvest was determined by the temple calendar. It seemed to be totally nonsensical, so they said, 'Get rid of all this, we can help you make your rice harvest much, much more productive than even you're, very successfully, doing at the moment. Use these pesticides, use this calendar, do this, that and the other'. So they started and for two or three years the rice production went up enormously, but the whole predator/prey/pest balance went completely out of kilter. Very shortly, the rice harvest plummeted again and the Balinese said, 'Screw it, we're going back to the temple calendar!' and they reinstated what was there before and it all worked again absolutely perfectly. It's all very well to say that basing the rice harvest on something as irrational and meaningless as a religion is stupid - they should be able to work it out more logically than that, but they might just as well say to us, 'Your culture and society works on the basis of money and that's a fiction, so why don't you get rid of it and just co-operate with each other' - we know it's not going to work!
So, there is a sense in which we build meta-systems above ourselves to fill in the space that we previously populated with an entity that was supposed to be the intentional designer. . . and create one and then allow ourselves to behave as if there was one, all sorts of things begin to happen that otherwise wouldn't happen.

Let's assume for purposes of argument that Adams was correct. Then comes the tricky bit: what sort of artificial God should there be and how should we go about behaving as though He exists and cares about what we do and don't do? Egocentric to raise such questions? Perhaps, but if an actual God made us and is "good," He surely included a healthy dose of ego as well as lots of less desirable attributes. If He exists, I hope that he will not be much offended by the process.

For devout Christians and Jews, these questions probably needn't be answered; their beliefs suffice. Adherents to Radical Islam, the "religion of peace," probably don't need to answer them either, but it might be useful for all of us if, while taking qat breaks from suicide bombings, honor killings and beheadings, they were to give some thought to the matter.

Since Christians long ago ceased burning witches and heretics at the stake and now generally abjure the killing of Jews for having crucified Jesus and thereby kick-starting Christianity, the God of the New Testament might be a good model for an artificial God. The United States, like the rice farmers in Bali, did pretty well until He was shoved to the side by multiculturalism and became decreasingly relevant to the behavior of modern American society. Multiculturalism is not a very propitious God.

Here is what I make of it all. We should act on the assumption that the United States' Judeo-Christian heritage is good rather than bad, that it merits our determined defense and that there are objective standards of right and wrong. Like the rice farmers in Bali, some of us may not know exactly where the standards came from or why, and there is less than unanimous agreement at the periphery as to what they are. Still, I think we can agree that the basics do exist, that they work and that we ignore them at our national peril. It strikes me as plausible that the basic moral teachings of traditional religions which succeeded over the centuries did so because their basic principles worked and were grounded in the nature of man. A variation on a principal teaching of Christianity, the Golden Rule, was articulated by Socrates and many others long before Jesus came on the scene, and if generally observed, it works. The concept of individual charity toward those less fortunate has roots at least as deep, and it would be a good thing if there were enough of it for the government to curtail its own politically directed, profligate and often socially disastrous efforts. My frame of reference, lest there be any doubt, is countries which, like the United States, have their roots in the Judeo-Christian religion but don't enforce an official state religion. Other countries might fare better than at present under such an Artificial God, but I lack sufficient familiarity with them to offer even remotely useful suggestions.

There must be tolerance toward those who disagree, within limits: those who wish to celebrate Saturnalia, or nothing at all, rather than Christmas, for example. That seems very unlikely to harm others and they should be free to do as they wish; that tolerance must be reciprocated if it is to persist. For example, those who wish their non-belief to be tolerated must learn to tolerate such things as Christmas trees, Easter bunnies and the public display of the Ten Commandments. I understand that in some communities, Jews work overtime during Christian holidays so that Christians can be free of secular obligations; I also understand that in some communities this kindness is reciprocated. Those who consider abortion an abomination per se should act in accordance with their views; however, they should not force others, on pain of criminal prosecution or private violence, to adhere to those views; neither should they be required to support, financially or otherwise, abortion or those who advocate abortion.

Kipling's In the Neolithic Age offers some useful insights.There, he essentially channeled a tribal singer from the Neolithic age, who recounted how he had murdered a rival who didn't approve of his songs and a "mammothistic etcher" whose art he didn't care for, because he knew his own work was right and theirs was wrong. His totem saw the shame, and in a vision of the night appeared to him, commenting that "there are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right." Then, the silence closed upon him and he awoke in a modern age, once again a poet.

Still the world is wondrous large,--seven seas from marge to marge,--
And it holds a vast of various kinds of man;
And the wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Khatmandhu,
And the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban.

Here's my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose
And the reindeer roamed where Paris roars to-night: —
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And — every — single — one — of — them — is — right!
We are in danger of forfeiting much that heretofore made the United States what many of us wish she still were. If the descent is to be halted or possibly even reversed, we had better be careful. Mark Steyn recently wrote,
Every time I retail the latest indignity imposed upon the "citizen" by some or other Continental apparatchik, I receive e-mails from the heartland pointing out, with much reference to the Second Amendment, that it couldn’t happen here because Americans aren’t Euro-weenies. But nor were Euro-weenies once upon a time. Hayek . . . wrote with an immigrant’s eye on the Britain of 1944:
the virtues which are held less and less in esteem and which consequently become rarer are precisely those on which the British people justly prided themselves and in which they were generally agreed to excel. The virtues . . . were independence and self-reliance, individual initiative and local responsibility, the successful reliance on voluntary activity, noninterference with one’s neighbor and tolerance of the different and queer, respect for custom and tradition, and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.
Two-thirds of a century on, almost every item on the list has been abandoned. . . [T]he reflex response now to almost any passing inconvenience is to demand the government "do something," the cost to individual liberty be damned. . . As Europe demonstrates, a determined state can change the character of a people in the space of a generation or two. Look at what the Great Society did to the black family and imagine it applied to the general population: That’s what happened in Britain.
Regardless of whether there is an actual God and regardless of our views on the matter, we should behave as though there were one of the sort on whom our fundamental national character has long been based. Failure to do so has already led the United States down the road toward oblivion, and this process must be reversed. Whether that can or will happen remains to be seen, but with the resurgence of popular support for the basic principles upon which the nation was founded, there is reason for optimism.