Archive for January, 2008
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
–Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”
You can’t build a fence that blocks out the sea. Originally peopled by the
Manhattoes Dutch English, the island of New York and its surroundings rapidly matured into the premier port town of a youthful United States. It grew quickly enough during the 19th C—with no little contribution from a disparate array of far-flung lands—that widespread anti-immigration, or Nativist, sentiment festered at both the street and national levels.
An overwhelming majority of the immigrants coming to the United States were from Catholic countries, and religion appears to have been the primary source for Nativist agita. For all the talk of separation of church and state that features so prominently in our Founding Fathers’ political theory—or perhaps precisely because of it—the (Protestant) national identity was seen to be compromised by the Papist allegiances of the new arrivals and the rejection of American values that such allegiances would entail.
In its first incarnation, which peaked during the 1840s, American Nativism had a distinctly anti-Irish character (mind you, south German Catholics didn’t exactly inspire adulation in Nativist quarters either). Official groups and associations, like the Order of United Americans, formed a loose nucleus for the movement. One secret society, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, gave birth to the American or “Know-Nothing” Party, which ran ex-President Milliard Fillmore as a candidate for the White House in 1856. Another famous candidate, Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, ran for the Mayoralty of New York City on a Nativist platform.
At the same time as these organizations held meetings in polite society and competed in elections, they promulgated lurid propaganda about Catholics (their occult infant-sacrifice rituals and the like) that helped whipped up violent fury among the “native born” population. Througout the period, riots flared up across the Northeast, especially in New York (a recent fictionalization is the Martin Scorcese film, Gangs of New York); destruction of Catholic property and loss of life usually followed.
By the time the of Civil War, the Irish population of New York had been incorporated, to some degree, into the political power structure of the city, specifically into the Democratic (opposition) Party under the aegis of Tammany Hall. In 1863, the city saw the largest civil insurrection in American history, the New York Draft Riots; most of the rioters were Irish and German Catholics. Somewhat ironically, they directed their ire, violently, upon the city’s black population, a symbol, so they saw it, for a group of people undeserving of the citizenship that a Union victory would grant them.
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So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man
–William Wordsworth, “My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold”
Before the daggers of March 15, before encarpeted Egyptian princesses, before omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa fuerat, before the whole Caesarian shoot and she-bang first made waves across the ancient Mediterranean world—before all this, there was only Gaius Julius, a young nobleman fled to the East in what amounted to semi-exile. Lucius Cornelius Sulla was dictator in Rome, and Caesar’s family had run afoul of him in the recent series of civil wars; it was only through the offices of maternal connections that the teenage tyrant-in-training had been permitted to leave with life and property.
The young Gauis proved irrepressible, extremely talented, and headstrong; his youthful adventures give us a measure of his character that is consonant with the man from rather more famous adventures later in life. In particular, his encounter with with a group of pirates illustrates the many dimensions of Caesar that engendered his conquest of the known world and bloody exit from it.
While traveling across the Aegean Sea, Caesar’s ship was captured by a fleet of Cilician pirates, who were, according to Plutarch, commonly known to be “the most murderous of men.” Murderous countenances notwithstanding, Gauis Julius laughed off their demand for a ransom of twenty talents (the going rate for an individual of senatorial rank), and claimed that, as a scion of one of Rome’s oldest families and ostensible descendant of Venus herself, he was worth fifty talents at the very minimum. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, the pirate “king” agreed to the price and sent Caesar’s retinue off to raise funds.
Caesar’s behavior while awaiting his ransom was no less high-handed, which endeared him to his captors, at least for a time. He took exercise with the pirates, composed speeches and poems which he recited to them (calling any critics “illiterate barbarians”), and frequently threatened to execute all of them upon his release (all in good fun of course—pirates have a curious sense of humor). When the money finally arrived, Caesar bade his kindnappers farewell, promising a quick, and armed, return.
The coastways of Cilicia are notoriously craggy, complex, and difficult to navigate—it is not by chance that piracy was a Cilician cottage industry. One can imagine, then, the great surprise of Caesar’s captors when the brash young man—with no prior naval experience—reversed the roles and took their fleet at unawares. True to his word, Caesar had returned in force, and, true to his word, Caesar had made all the preparations to have them crucified.
His plans were almost spoiled by the venality of the Roman governor at Pergamum, who stayed the executions in the hopes of pirate bribe money. As history was later to show, Caesar was no respecter of laws, only honor; taking advantage of a sluggish gubernatorial bureaucracy, he rounded up his kidnappers and insured that every last one of them met the fate he had promised.
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Thomas Paine had one of the most remarkable political careers in the history of mankind. In the 1770s, he was the most influential pamphleteer and propagandist for the cause of American independence. In the 1790s, he bravely defended the ideals of the French Revolution against conservative attacks. (He even faced the possibility of the guillotine rather than be complicit with Robespierre’s Reign of Terror.) Looking back at his career he remarked, “to have taken part in two revolutions was to have lived to some purpose.” Amen, as the faithful would say.
As it happens, Paine cannot be counted among the faithful himself.
He is most famous for two books. The first, Common Sense, was his direct and forceful call for American independence. The other, The Rights of Man, was a direct response to Edmund Burke’s critical Reflections on the Revolution in France. But these are not his only major works. Though it is often excluded from collections of his writing and seldom mentioned in short biographical sketches, The Age of Reason may be Paine’s most revolutionary work.
The Age of Reason is subtitled Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology, and it may have been the most strident critique of religion ever published when Paine released it. Paine began writing the work while awaiting execution in a French prison (he was eventually released) and he wrote like a man with nothing to lose. He called the Hebrew Bible “a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind.” He called the “fable” of Jesus Christ “blasphemously obscene,” after wryly observing that “it is nothing extraordinary that a woman should be with child before she was married.” (True enough, but an incredibly blasphemous remark about the Virgin Mary at the time it was written.)
Paine’s writings on religion are still shocking today, centuries after they were written. Nonetheless, they deserve to be better known. No account of this Founding Father is complete without them.
Read The Age of Reason and other works by Thomas Paine here.
Many writers have attempted to advance the case for secularism in recent years, and almost all of them have cited Paine as an inspiration. Check out some of their works.
The End of Faith, by Sam Harris
The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins
Breaking the Spell, by Daniel C. Dennett
god is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens
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In presidential politics, the common wisdom does not favor senatorial candidates—long legislative records leave long, often compromising paper trails. By extension, it is possible to see how this same rule applies to any institution with something like a history. The longer you’ve been around, the more exposed you are. No surprise then that the oldest institution for higher learning in the United States, Harvard University, has some black marks on its past.
When it comes to admissions policy, Harvard looks pretty enlightened set in the context of its peer institutions like Yale and Princeton. It set up a school for Native Americans in the 17th C (admittedly, in order to convert them), had alumni like Ralph Waldo Emerson who were prominent in the Abolition movement, and accepted non-Protestant and non-white students in the mid 19th C (which constitutes very early, sad to say). Of course, a student here or there or a distinguished alumnus must be taken with a grain of salt—Harvard was merely the most tolerant of prominent universities and quite the bastion of white Protestant male authority. Truth be told, earlier notions of tolerance resound quite poorly in our own times: a case in point would be the quota for Jewish students instituted at the turn of the 20th C, actually designed to combat anti-Semitism. Harvard accepted far more Jewish students than other Universities and this led to rancour in racist quarters of its student body. The quota was meant to allay the fears of anti-Semites while not backing away from having a sizable Jewish student population.
One of Harvard’s most shameful moments was, perhaps, in 1920 with the establishment of a “Secret Court” expressly for the expulsion of gay students. Following revelations arising from suicide of Cyril Wilcox, who was involved with a number of other gay undergraduates and professors, the president of the University, A. Lawrence Lowell, and a body of five other administrators held trials for fourteen men. All of the men, mostly students, were expelled not only from the school, but the city of Cambridge as well. In fact, Harvard went so far as to actively block several of the men in their attempts to enroll elsewhere.
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In the history of high-yield speculation, the asking price for the Venus de Milo (or Aphrodite of Milos) may be just this side of Manhattan’s infamous glass bead appraisal, but the 1,300 piastres (roughly 600 current US dollars) paid for the Hellenistic masterpiece certainly typifies the kind of bargain basement price that would have jaws dropping at the Antiques Roadshow. Some perspective vis-à-vis other artworks is helpful here: Jackson’s Pollock’s No. 5—a masterpiece in its own right, but not on the order of the Venus—sold for $140 million in 2006, about 233 thousand times the statue’s buying price. (Of course, barring a major cataclysm, it is difficult to envision the Louvre selling off its most famous goddess.)
So, who was the eagle-eyed art dealer able to wrangle such a steal and is he available for private consultation? Well, unfortunately for the prospective home improvers among us, Jules Dumont d’Urville has been dead for well over a century and the Greeks have long since wised up to the value of their patrimony. Not so, though, in 1820, when the French naval officer and gentleman classicist spotted the recently unearthed statue while exploring rural Milos. He immediately grasped its value and insisted on its acquisition. His captain, less fond of and knowledgeable about antiquites, was unwilling to make room in the cargo bay for the Venus. The peasant islanders who had agreed to sell the sculpture to the frenchman grew impatient and cut a deal with a local priest instead (for well under 1,300 piastres!).
Good thing then for the greater glory of France, recently bereaved of the Medici Venus, that Mssr. d’Urville was a persistent man. Upon reaching Constantinople, he contacted the French ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, one Marquis de Riviere, who recognized a deal when he saw one. After some tricky negotiations that resulted in the whipping of no fewer than two completely blameless Milesians, the goddess was in French hands as securely as the apple in her own (hmm, another story for another day).
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Race of Cain! Hearts hot with hate,
Leave all such appetites behind.
Race of Abel! grow and graze,
Like woodlice that on timbers prey.
Race of Cain! along rough ways
Lead forth your family at bay.
-Charles Baudelaire, “Abel et Caïn”
The purely Good Son is never the interesting one: audiences love a tale that ends in redemption or perdition, and the Cain archetype is certainly full of the latter. The wanderings of Cain (and his indelible divine marking) dog the tracks of literary history—he seems to show up in each new reimagining of the cosmos. Here he is in Hebrew folklore, sometimes teaching his offspring to procreate with fallen angels, sometimes building the first cities in the land of Nod. There he is in 1300, his lunar settlement casting shadows on the Dantean moon. Islamic sources say he migrated to Yemen. The Beowulf poet claimed Grendel for a descendant. Cain also had audience with early Mormons in Colorado and Tennessee, lamenting his fate as the primeval Master Mahan (father of secret societies and criminal organizations). In Steinbeck’s East of Eden, he appears in successive generations as Charles and Caleb, respectively, a red streak on the American prairie.
This is but a cursory glance at the legends of wandering Cain; no such list can be compiled for his brother. There is something deeply appealing in a curse, something that speaks to and captivates the human imagination, always sympathetic to the martyr but empathetic to the sinner. Abel, the slain son, moulders in the fields of Canaan, a byword for innocence slaughtered and nothing more; his murderer—the first murderer, a brother murderer—is doomed forever to walk the earth, a ghost made corporeal in the welt of his bloody endless hauntings. And, lord knows, we all love a good ghost story.
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At the Devoted Intellect, one of our main pursuits is the separation of fact from fancy (perhaps this is because we are such fanciers of fact). Bias is a concern in any text purporting to be an accurate record of human affairs; however, the farther back we travel in time, the more confounded the testimony of our forbears becomes. The ancients and many of the not-so-ancients often had what could politely be called an open-minded approach to the recording of history: this accounts for the gold dust-collecting hairy ants of Herodotus, rains of frogs in the Old Testament, and the dragons seen by every explorer from Marco Polo to Sir Francis Drake.
The first writer in the Western historical tradition to abjure the inclusion of myth and legend in his books was Thucydides of Athens. Thucydides was a nobleman of famous family and a General in the Athenian army. His monograph, History of the Peloponnesian War, ranks among the great masterpieces of literature—it is a genotext, which is to say, it is the first of kind and the beginning of a tradition.
Thucydides’ social status placed him in a unique position to witness both the origins and the proceedings of the conflict between Athens and Sparta for mastery over the Aegean and Magna Graecia. Thus, in many ways, The Peloponnesian War looks like the result of a long-term journalistic effort. Thucydides tell his reader that he relies only on his own experience and the eyewitness accounts of sources he personally deems reliable, and the work itself bears the distinct imprint of a writer who had a vested interest in the outcome of his subject.
The History of the Peloponnesian War was not without manufactured events, most notably the many speeches of the main actors, such as Pericles and Alcibiades, but its effect on the future of historiography cannot be understated. Though innumerable subsequent historians—Livy and Charlemagne’s biographer, to name just two—proved fond of legend, nearly all of those who were familiar with Thucydides or his followers applied at least some standard for scientific veracity to their own research.
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