Archive for April, 2008
We are all familiar with the oft-repeated maxim that the United States of America is country of immigrants, but when we consider non-English speaking immigrants, our thoughts start their descent somewhere near the turn of 19th C. And while the Louisiana Purchase and earlier French ownership of the lands it included are well-known, the identity of the Atlantic coastal states (the Thirteen Colonies) is closely associated with Anglophone settlement: that the English integrity of the area was ever in doubt is suggested only by a whiff of the exotic in occasional place names such as Brooklyn or Peekskill.
Students of the earliest colonial days in North America will, of course, be aware that the first European settlers in the mid-Atlantic region—roughly, parts of contemporary New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania—were the Dutch, whose colony of New Netherland lasted nearly forty years, until its final cessation to the English following the the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672–74). Though Dutch linguistic custom lingered on for just a short while, forty years of political administration, it would seem, was a long enough time for the New Netherlanders to inscribe their signature on the American geographic memory. Moreover, a class of aristocratic landowners (patroons) whose antecedents were settlers of New Netherland managed to produce two influential American Presidents, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt.
Less cartographically and presidentially successful was the colony of New Sweden, or Nya Sverige, founded along the banks of the Schuylkill river, which runs through Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Sweden had risen to great international prominence in the middle of the 17th C, a time commonly referred to today as “The Golden Age of Sweden,” and in the 1630s, the young northern power actively pursued a colonial foothold in the growing North American market (particularly the tobacco market). The Swedish government found for itself just the kind of colony-founder it was looking for in one Peter Minuit, a Walloon from Wesel in the Duchy of Cleves.
Minuit was a former Director-General of New Netherland—he was the visionary who finagled the legendary trade of Manhattan for glass beads with the Canarsee—and was thus privy to the fact that the colony owned “deeds” only to lands on the eastern banks of the Schuylkill river. Although the Dutch had claimed the lands on both sides of the river and the establishment of New Sweden in 1638 was tantamount to an invasion of New Netherlandish territory, Minuit further exploited his knowledge of his former employer’s organizational limits when he capitalized on a time of Dutch military unpreparedness and successfully negotiated with the Delawares for “deeds” to lands west of the river.
The initial success of Minuit’s brazen gambit proved short-lived. For a decade and a half, New Sweden grew steadily, only to be decisively defeated by the Dutch following an ill-considered attempt at further territorial expansion in 1654. Though the Swedish (and Finnish) settlers were permitted local autonomy until their eventual incorporation into English territory and legal jurisdiction in the 1680s, they failed to entrench themselves in the same way as their Dutch counterparts. The capital of New Sweden, Fort Christina, is much better known today as Wilmington, DE, and while this is in keeping with such re-christenings as the one that turned New Amsterdam into New York, there is no similar preponderance of strangely named suburban communities that preserve New Sweden’s glory for the ages.
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Political institutions do not spring from the heads of their founders fully formed like so many well-oiled Athenas to guide the ship of state: that the Constitution of the United States recognizes its own inherent mutability is due only to the particular genius of its framers. Over the course of its history, both explicit amendment and a body of unofficial, customary policy has shaped the practical usage of the American Constitution. (Those who would make arguments that focus on “original intent” might do well to recall that, in its earliest days, many of the operational features of the new government remained obscure. Prior to Washington’s assumption of office, no one was even clear as to what the new president of the Republic should be called—“his majesty” and “his excellency” were two Old World styles of address he brushed off with characteristic republican modesty.)
The judiciary branch was the last branch of the United States government to come into its own: The young country passed more than a decade before its highest court assumed something like the function envisioned for it in 1789. The 4th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall (1801–1835), did more than anyone else to raise judicial reality to a level approaching its Constitutional ideal. Though Marshall had, in fact, turned down an appointment as an Associate Justice in 1797 and he wasn’t President Adams’ first choice for the job in 1801—ex-Chief Justice John Jay declined a reappointment on the grounds that the Court lacked “energy, weight, and dignity”—his nomination would prove momentous. Marshall’s longevity—thirty-five years in office—may have guaranteed the great weight of his jurisprudential imprimatur, but two of his most fundamental contributions to posterity came early in his career.
Shortly after taking up the gavel, Marshall revolutionized the way in which Supreme Court decisions were handed down to the public. Previously, following English common law, each judge on the American high court had penned his own opinion in any given case (a practice known as seriatim opinion). Marshall did away with seriatim opinions, and instituted the practice of handing down a single majority opinion. While, in the short term, this allowed him to become the sole mouthpiece for the Supreme Court, in the long run it has had the effect of creating forceful legal precedents, unclouded by multiple opinions.
It would be unforgivable to write about Marshall and ignore the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison of 1803. Marbury established the doctrine of judicial review, which is based on Article III of the Constitution and grants the court power to uphold or overturn the legality of any action undertaken by a public body, president or legislature. In essence, Marshall’s interpretation created what we have come to see as the major “check” the judicial branch exercises over the other branches of government.
So, taken all-in-all, we might just say that Marshall managed to provide the Supreme Court with plenty of the energy, weight, and dignity it hitherto had lacked.
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In those rare moments during which it is possible to suspend our acute consciousness of the suffering and bloodshed sprayed all over the pages of human history, the realization dawns that Dame Clio, up there on her Parnassian heights, possesses a highly developed sense of irony. While the voyage of the Titanic may just take the cake for demented poetic justice, we should not ignore the curious heritage of Tomás de Torquemada.
The Dominican friar, who rose to prominence as the Confessor of Queen Isabella, was the first Inquisitor General of the legendarily cruel Spanish Inquisition and the mastermind behind what many consider to be the first modern attempt at genocide. Under his guidance, the crown promulgated the Alhambra Decree, which formally expelled all Jews from Spain in 1492, and, as Inquisitor General, Torquemada devoted his energy to rooting out “heresy” on a national scale. Effectively, this translated into the persecution, dispossession, torture, and execution (by fire) of large sections of the converso, or newly Christian, population on charges of “crypto-Judaism.”
Beginning to see where this is going? Torquemada would have done well to take a closer look in the mirror—Fate has read her Freud. The Inquisitor’s grandmother was, of course, a Jewish convert. Mel Brooks may have put it best: “Auto de fe, what’s an auto de fe? It’s what you oughtn’t to do but you do anyway.”
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René Descartes may just be the Thinking Man’s thinking man. More than any other modern philosopher, he is identified with the view that the soul is separate from the body and superior to it—in fact, we refer to this position as Cartesian dualism. The synonymy is so overwhelming, one can imagine him subjected to some hackneyed literary or television treatment wherein he is brought forcibly into the present, only to find success as an advertising executive with his slogan for the Winterman sneaker account that promises “mind over matter.” (For the women’s line: I pink therefore I am.)
Any dualistic theory encounters what is known in philosophy as the mind-body problem: how is it possible for two entirely discrete substances to act in concert and produce what we conceive of as unitary being? Curiously enough, Descartes’ lifelong passion for experimental physiology—which, for him, was just rationalistic epistemology by other means—influenced his answers. He was an avid practitioner of dissection on both human and animal bodies. (Because he believed animals were mindless machines and could not feel pain, he often dissected them while they remained alive.) In his search to discover the differences that distinguish humans and animals from one another as res intelligens and res extensa—that is, intelligent beings and “machines,” respectively—he hit upon the pineal gland, which he found present only in the human brain.
The pineal gland, located near the center of the brain, had been the subject of philosophical and scientific speculation since the days of Galen in Greek Antiquity. In most theories, it plays the part of a regulator, coordinating the flow of “spirits” (vaguely analogous to contemporary “nerves”) between different parts of the brain. Descartes came to the conclusion that pineal gland was the threshold over which pure mind and outward matter were connected. His observations as an anatomist were largely responsible for such a view. In response to questions arising from his 1639 Treatise of Man, he wrote:
“Since it is the only solid part in the whole brain which is single [microscopic research has proved this unity false], it must necessarily be the seat of the common sense, i.e., of thought, and consequently of the soul; for one cannot be separated from the other. The only alternative is to say that the soul is not joined immediately to any solid part of the body, but only to the animal spirits which are in its concavities, and which enter it and leave it continually like the water of river. That would certainly be thought too absurd” (24 December 1640, AT III:264, CSMK 162).
A decade later, in The Passions of the Soul, Descartes further elaborated on how the pineal gland worked:
“the activity of the soul consists entirely in the fact that simply by willing something it brings it about that the little gland to which it is closely joined moves in the manner required to produce the [bodily] effect corresponding to this volition” (AT XI:359, CSM I:343).
A unique hypothesis to be sure, but Descartes never satisfactorily explained, even in his own mind, just how the will caused the pineal gland to move in its particular fashion. His speculations about it were abandoned by his followers and detractors alike. In the 20th C, after several centuries of relative neglect, Yale scholar Aaron Lerner and his colleagues discovered that the pineal gland is the body’s major producer of melatonin, a hormone that is involved in sexual development, sleep rhythms, metabolic functions, and seasonal breeding in animals.
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Music08 Apr 2008 01:50 am
They were not based on a pair of identically idiotic political blowhards. They were not early forerunners of French critical theory, as Lewis Carroll would have you believe. And, finally, they were not just another pair of völkisch characters, drawn from a stock of traditional Anglo-Saxon nursery rhymes (famously edited by the indefatigable Mother Goose). No, dear reader, there were no such antecedents for Messrs. Tweedledee and Tweedledum; if anything, their genesis bears the imprint of a far nobler stamp, plucked, as it were, from the Eternal Harmonies of the Seven Spheres.
In the 1720s, the elite circles of English society were still in some turmoil following the accession of George I, a German prince, to the throne. The new king spoke very little English, and, while the practice of promoting favorites was neither unique nor unexpected, his practice of advancing German courtiers provoked the ire of native-born aristocrats, who felt that their provenance had been usurped.
One notable favorite of King George was his kappelmeister, or chorus master, whom he brought with him from Hanover: George Frideric Handel. Handel had met with much early success in Italy and was well regarded throughout Europe. However, he was not yet the dominant composer of the Messiah and Water Music that lorded it over the English scene when he was appointed director of the Royal Academy of Music in 1719. His main rival in these years proved to be one Giovanni Battista Bononcini, himself a beneficiary of patronage from the powerful and anti-Hanoverian Duke of Marlborough.
The rivalry between the two composers soon became quite fierce, and support for either one bore a suspicious affinity to political allegiances. There were accusations of musical pilfering from both parties and, in fact, there was pilfering by both parties: When asked why he borrowed material composed by Bononcini, Handel is said to have replied, “It’s much too good for him; he did not know what to do with it.”
At the height of the controversy, John Byrom, a minor poet and writer of hymns from Manchester, penned an epigram which gently ridiculed the spat (the last two, relevant lines of which are occasionally attributed to both Pope and Swift). In the poem, he assigns the composers onomatopoeic names that poke fun at the notion that there could be any serious difference between two men whose musical measures are separated solely by a “dee” and a “dum:”
Some say, compar’d to Bononcini
That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle
Strange all this Difference should be
‘Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!
Bononcini was eventually forced to retire from London in ignominy; he was caught passing off an entire composition written by someone else as his own, and this was plagiarism beyond the pale. In our own time, Handel’s reputation occupies the loftiest of perches, while Bononcini is forgotten. Of course, contrariwise, it could be argued that Bononcini’s memory is preserved, if only in two notes—his tweedle-dum lives on.
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For the romantic heart that beats in the breast of every devoted intellectual, nothing quite matches a conflict between intemperate ignorance and heroic reason, where the persecuted man of science or philosophy makes a stand against the forces of intolerance and superstition. The formula for such a story is, of course, nearly as old as the Western intellectual tradition itself: Plato’s account of the trial and death of Socrates St. Martyr is often construed as the entry point to the “Life of the Mind.” The majority of more modern struggles in this vein feature the post-Reformation Catholic Church in the role of roadblock to progress, originally played by the Athenian mob, and the Italian physicist and astronomer, Galileo Galilei, is, perhaps, the embattled champion of science lionized above all others.
At the crux of the controversy that arose between Galileo and the Church, which had been a long-time supporter of his research, was the astronomer’s unreserved espousal of the Copernican view of the solar system. The church—not to mention the majority of contemporaneous scientists—held to the centuries-old Ptolemaic system, which placed the earth at the center of the universe; this latter position was not a silly or unschooled as it sounds to 21st C ears—at the time, the heliocentric thesis was more remarkable for mathematical elegance than the empirical evidence in its support. (Ironically, Galileo disagreed with Kepler’s theory of elliptical planetary orbits, by which heliocentric theory achieved accordance with observed data.)
Galileo’s work in astronomy came under clerical fire almost immediately following his earliest published scholarship on the moons of Jupiter in 1610, in which he first made arguments in favor of the Copernican system. However, nearly all of the ecclesiastical attacks against were of a theological nature—the notion that the earth traveled around the sun contravened Biblical scripture—and this has reinforced the conventional narrative that the opposition to heliocentrism was solely religious in nature. Galileo, who very much considered himself a Catholic, adhered to the Augustinian tradition of allegorical exegesis. He enjoyed support from many quarters in the Church, most notably from one Cardinal Barberini who was later anointed Pope Urban VIII, though he shied away from further astronomical study in the wake of an ecclesiastic order that stipulated heliocentrism was only fit for discussion as hypothesis neither “held nor defended.”
Following the election of the sympathetic Urban, Galileo once again took up the telescope. Although the pope subscribed to a geocentric view, he personally encouraged the astronomer to write a dialogue that presented both sides of the argument without bias (do I hear teach the controversy? anyone?), and provided Galileo with formal Inquisitorial permission for his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632. Rather foolishly—rather like an absent-minded professor —Galileo named his fallacy-prone mouthpiece for the geocentric view Simplicius, and had him speak in the actual words of his papal admirer. Urban was profoundly insulted and signed off on Inquisitorial proceeding against the scientist.
At his heresy trial, Galileo stood no chance of winning; however unintentional, he had alienated most of his supporters. Convicted, he found it circumspect to decline an opportunity to follow the Socratic road, and abjured his previous positions. Thereby, he was able to spend the remainder of his considerably longer life under house arrest. A legend has appeared to the effect that, upon walking away from the tribunal, he muttered so that everyone could hear, “E pur si muove [and yet, it moves],” but the historical veracity of such a statement is highly suspect—the first written account of it did not appear until 1761.
This fiction of Galileo’s (rather restrained) heroism has become a foundational myth for those who which to purvey a historical narrative in which religion is utterly hostile towards science. (And, as such, the immortal rejoinder made its way onto the high school yearbook page of at least one youthfully exuberant blogger here at the Devoted Intellectual.) However, a closer examination of the story illustrates what philosopher Thomas Kuhn would call the basic incommensurability of the two worldviews, geo- and heliocentric. Galileo employed a radically new scientific vocabulary, itself imperfectly realized, and, while the actions of his adversaries are not to be commended, he ultimately failed to convince his more cautious, historically-grounded contemporaries that he had successfully debunked their well-worn paradigm.
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