01 July 2015

Absolute Idiocy of the Day

[Quoted in “Rebukes of Hazzard,” at Snopes]

30 June 2015

Quotation of the Day

 marvel at the audacity of those who are now so terribly concerned that those who oppose marriage equality will be ostracized as bigots after showing no concern whatsoever for the decades, centuries, in which gay people have been ostracized from society and treated as pariahs. They clutch their pearls at being considered as bigots after not objecting, and in many cases themselves participating in, the wholesale demonization of gay people as demon-possessed pedophiles deliberately trying to destroy the country, the world, the species. If you didn’t say anything about that abuse, and especially if you participate in it, I don’t want to hear one fucking word about how unfair it is that the opponents of equality are being called bigots.—Ed Brayton
[from “Posner Shreds Chief Justice Roberts’ Dissent,” Dispatches from the Culture Wars, 29 June 2015]

26 June 2015

Sic Transit

ell, it looks like the Supreme Court has ruled that “The Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.” It’s about time. I never could see what business the state has telling any two unmarried adults whether they could get married or not. The only plausible reason ever advanced was eugenic—the prohibition on close relatives marrying was supposed to minimize the occurrence of unsound offspring—and with that concept having fallen into disrepute the whole point seems moot.
People can yammer all they like about marriage being redefined, but that ship sailed centuries ago. Parents may still arrange marriages in the backwoods parts of the world, wives may be legally required to obey their husbands in societies mired in the mud of medieval superstitions, marriage may be a very unequal partnership in the tribes of tradition, but not here in the United States. Marriage was redefined out of its traditional existence a long time ago. And frankly, that marriage was nothing more than a form of legalized slavery, a kind of forced prostitution, and there is nothing to mourn in its passing.

30 May 2015

If This Be Treason

alf a century has passed since Mrs. Allen force-fed us American history in our fifth grade Social Studies class at John Rogers School in Vancouver Washington. John Rogers School is now gone, and so no doubt is Mrs. Allen, but American history is still with us.
Not that I was unacquainted with American history before that—if nothing else, I’d heard (many times) the Stan Freberg album The Early Years released the previous May, with his caricatures of Christopher Columbus, Benjamin Franklin, and especially George Washington. I knew some of the highlights, anyway, enough to get most of it. I also knew that Columbus wasn’t the first guy to think the world was round, and that Thomas Jefferson didn’t go door-to-door trying to get people to sign the Declaration of Independence, and that Norman Rockwell didn’t win the Revolutionary War by painting a giant mural.
Actually, one of the first things I did when I hit fifth grade was to check out the copy of the Declaration of Independence Mrs. Allen had hanging on the wall to see whether it did in fact say “purfuit of happineff” as Freberg’s Benjamin Franklin had claimed (it doesn’t) or whether George Washington had ever signed it (he didn’t). And seeing a reproduction of the “Spirit of ’76” painting hanging toward the front of the classroom cheered me a bit in the dark days ahead (“I’ve got the bandage around my ears, but it doesn’t help much”).
One of the figures who did not turn up on the Freberg album, however, was Patrick Henry. I don’t know whether I’d run into him in some connection or other before—I think I’d read some children’s book about him in third or fourth grade, actually—but I remember him from fifth grade history. Our book had his “give me liberty of give me death” speech in it (actually a lengthy excerpt, and it didn’t bother to inform us that the speech was a reconstruction made long after the fiery orator’s death) and I liked the rhetoric of it. Indeed, I admired it so much that when the end of the school year came around, and we had to return our books to the school, rather than lose the speech forever (as I imagined, because what other book could possibly have it except our fifth grade history book?), I memorized it.
But the electrifying moment for me came during the Stamp Act debates, when Henry was newly elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Defying the oppressive British authorities, Henry concluded a speech by saying “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell; and George the Third—” The speaker interrupted. “Treason,” he cried. Imperturbably Patrick Henry continued, “—may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it.”
Damn, that was cool. That was sharp. Make the most of it indeed. Of course a couple of years later when I learned that Patrick Henry was a slave-owner (a fact Mrs. Allen never bothered to mention) that liberty-or-death thing seemed to ring a bit hollow, but in fifth grade that particular moment stood out in relief. If this be treason, make the most of it. A kind of devil-may-care defiance of an oppressive tyrant—the sort of thing I would have liked to have said anent Mrs. Allen, if only I’d had the guts—or the presence of mind.
It’s now been a quarter of a millennium (and doesn’t that sound grand?) since Patrick Henry’s moment of defiance, and time has perhaps fogged the picture a bit. Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a time-machine and could go back and see the moment for ourselves? To stand there while Patrick Henry delivered that line and hear it for ourselves?
Well, we can’t. But there is in history something like a time-machine, sometimes. There are contemporary accounts of an incident, moments as seen by an actual observer and recorded while the memory is fresh. And, in fact, we are lucky enough to have such an account, written by a French traveler, who happened to be passing through at this significant moment.
Yes, believe it or not this anonymous visitor just happened to drop in on this very day, two hundred and fifty years ago. “I went immediately to the assembly which was sitting,” he wrote (spelling modernized), “where I was entertained with very strong debates concerning duties that the Parliament wants to lay on the American colonies, which they call or style stamp duties.” No sooner did he get there than a certain member (“his name is Hennery” he informs us parenthetically) got up and “said he had read that in former times Tarquin and Julius had their Brutus, Charles had his Cromwell” (yes, yes, here it comes!) “and he did not doubt but some good American would stand up in favor of his country.”
What? Patrick Henry actually called for an assassination? That’s not the way I heard it in fifth grade!
“But—” Patrick Henry was going to continue in a more moderate tone, when the speaker interrupted him. Okay, now we’re back on track. The speaker said that Henry “had spoke treason [yes!], and was sorry to see that not one of the members of the house was loyal enough to stop him, before he had gone so far.”
Okay, that’s a little different, but now surely Patrick Henry stands his ground? Now he turns it around with a sharp retort?
Well, according to our narrative Henry again addressed the house and “said that if he had affronted the speaker, or the house, he was ready to ask pardon, and he would show his loyalty to his majesty King George the third, at the expense of the last drop of his blood.” Just wait a goddamn minute, no—that can’t be right. “But what he had said must be attributed to the interest of his country’s dying liberty which he had at heart, and the heat of passion might have lead him to have said something more than he intended, but, again, if he said anything wrong, he begged the speaker and the house’s pardon.” After that it’s really an anticlimax to read that several other members spoke in his favor “and the affair was dropped.”
What happened? I’m almost as disappointed as the narrator of Bring the Jubilee who goes back to watch Lee win the battle of Gettysburg and instead witnesses his crushing defeat.
Well, it seems that time has indeed somewhat distorted the incident. The French traveler wasn’t apparently the only one to note it. A presumably independent account (dated 21 June 1765) described it:
Mr. [Henry] has lately blazed out in the Assembly, where he compared [George III] to a Tarquin, a Caesar, a Charles the First, threatening him with a Brutus, or an Oliver Cromwell; yet Mr. [Henry] was not sent to the Tower: but having prevailed to get some ridiculous violent Resolves passed, rode off in triumph, some of which Resolves were passed one day, and erased the next; and the G[overnor], advised by the Council, thought proper to dissolve the Assembly.
No mention of an aftermath—either the if-this-be-treason line or the apology. Later in the summer (on 12 August) William Robinson noted the incident (almost certainly from this account) in a description of Patrick Henry’s character and activities:
He blazed out in a violent speech against the Authority of parliament and the King, comparing his Majesty to a Tarquin, a Cesar, and a Charles the First and not sparing insinuations that he wished another Cromwell would arise. He made a motion for several outrageous resolves, some of which passed and were again erased as soon as his back was turned.
Again, no sequel.
The first historical account (at least that I’m aware of) appeared in Charles Stedman’s 1794 The History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War, volume 1, p. 32. He described it like this:
Some idea may be formed of the manner in which this debate was conducted, by the following passage, extracted from a speech of one of the members [identified as “Mr. Patrick Henry” in a footnote], who afterwards made a conspicuous figure in the beginning of the rebellion. After declaiming with bitterness against the supposed arbitrary measures of the present reign, he added, “Cæsar had his Brutus, Charles the First an Oliver Cromwell, and George the Third—” But before he could proceed farther, a cry of, Treason! was heard from one quarter of the house, and the speaker soon afterwards rising up, called him to order, and declared that he would quit the chair, unless he was supported by the house in restraining such intemperate speeches.
For the first time we have Henry interrupted just after naming George III—and it will be noted, without any actual suggestion that “some good American” might play the part of Brutus or Cromwell. Did he have an independent source, or was he reimagining the event?
It isn’t until 1805 that John Burk (The History of Virginia: From Its First Settlement to the Present Day, Volume 3) mentions Henry’s classic rejoinder. After giving some lengthy excerpts from the speech (which are generally considered inauthentic) he comes to the point (well, our point anyway):
Here he entered into an historical enumeration of those examples of successful resistance to oppression which rendered glorious the annals of Rome and England, and concluded with this dreadful warning, which connected with its subsequent fulfilment, seemed like the inspiration of prophecy. “Caesar,” said he, “had his Brutus, Charles his Cromwell and (pausing) George the third. (here a cry of treason, treason was heard, supposed to issue from the chair, but with admirable presence of mind he proceeded) may profit by their examples. Sir, if this be treason, continued he, make the most of it.”
As Burk was not even born when Patrick Henry made his speech he had to have a source, and as his version ends the series of rulers by naming George III, it seems likely that his source was Stedman’s volume, or perhaps somebody who had read Stedman. The snappy conclusion? Well, Burk was a dramatist, and this line would play perfectly on the stage. I’m not saying he created it, but it would be nice to know where he got it.
The notion that Henry had delivered a dexterous comeback on that occasion was not unique to Burk. Jefferson remembered something of the sort, and Edmond Randolph gave an alternate version in his manuscript history of Virginia:
In his harangue, he certainly indulged a strain never before heard in the royal Capitol. This circumstance passed while he was speaking: “Caesar,” cried he, “had his Brutus; Charles the first his Cromwell; and George the third—” “Treason, sir,” exclaimed the Speaker, to which Henry instantly replied, “and George the third, may he never have either.” This dexterous escape or retreat, if it did not savor of lively eloquence, was of itself a victory.
I personally like the “if this be treason” version better, but this one is likely to be just as accurate.
So there it is. You can, I suppose, believe that the anonymous but contemporary Frenchman got it wrong somehow, and that the true version made its way via oral transmission to Burk. It’s unlikely as hell, but unlikely things sometimes happen, and this could be one of them. But I’ve got to say, honestly, that the Frenchman’s version seems so much more likely. I mean, it would be nice if Patrick Henry had had the presence of mind to deliver that snappy comeback, on cue and everything. But it savors of legend and things that should have happened, rather than history and things that did.

21 May 2015

Dying Happily Ever After

ords continue to fail me, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t write them, I suppose. It’s not as if anybody actually reads what I write. If I’m merely yelling into the desert winds, well, it doesn’t affect anybody but me.
At some point I have to come to terms with ruin. Actions have consequences. Misplaced trust leads to—what? Apathy? I know there’s a train of thought in there somewhere, if I could only entice it to come forth.
The followers of al-Baghdadi, neither Islamic nor a state by any reasonable definition, ride roughshod over their little piece of the world stage, and occupy an inordinate (and unwarranted) space in my mental terrain, along with such unlikely forms of life as mad tea partiers, libertarians, criminals and thugs of all descriptions. Hoodlums ye shall always have with you, as Jesus might have said, but ye shall not always have me. There’s the limit to it all, that ineffable wall there’s no reaching however many successive approximations are undertaken.
One of these days, should I live so long, I’ll have something to say again. In the meantime I’ll recycle old hits and spin gold cobwebs out of nothing.

Sarcasm of the Day

es indeed; let a thousand flowers bloom. Instead of a “single perspective” based on the idea of universal human rights, there should be gloriously rich and varied ethical standards: the Nazi kind, the Falangist kind, the Marxist-Leninist, the Maoist, the North Korea-ist, the apartheid-ist, the Vatican-ist … the Mugabe-ist, the Boko Haram-ist, the Islamic State-ist, the Saudi-ist. Some states forbid genocide, others practice it; some countries guarantee equal rights for all, others prefer to deny rights to most of the population. It’s all part of the thrilling creativity and diversity of human life.
Ophelia Benson
[A response to a statement by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in “Bigger, Better, Shinier Human Rights,” Free Inquiry, volume 35, issue 4]

12 May 2015

Quotation of the Moment

ou belong to a category of applicants where there is always a risk involved when granting a visa that you will not leave Schengen area after the visit. Furthermore, the purpose of your trip is not urgent enough to grant you visa.—Swedish Embassy in Dhaka to Ananta Bijoy Dash
[Quoted by Ophelia Benson, Butterflies and Wheels. Ananta Bijoy Dash was hacked to death before he could address his colleagues in Sweden on “the deteriorating situation in Bangladesh for journalists and writers”]

29 April 2015

Without God and the Bible: Concluding Remarks

’m not feeling well and facing the monthly crisis of paying the rent, so my enthusiasm for stomping on fake quotations is, shall we say, minimal, but I did start this series, however much I may regret it, and I feel obliged to somehow sum things up.
Obviously the story of the fake quotation It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible didn’t end with Howard Hyde Russell’s invention; if that were the case there would have been no need to write this series. (And I’m sure there are some of you who feel that there was no need to write it in any case—a fake is a fake is a fake, right?) It’s easy to find hundreds of examples over the next century. Here is one picked at random:
George Washington said, and said truly: “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.” All irreligious schemes are bound to be failures. Any government founded on such inadequate and dangerous principles is sure to crumble. [The Herald and Presbyter, 21 September 1921, p. 2]
Nor did the presence of more evolved forms of the saying drive out the ancestral forms. Here is an instance of Wilson’s version, somewhat truncated, from the same year:
Here is something from George Washington’s own lips, and over his own pen: “It is impossible to govern the world without God. He must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.” [David Eugene Olson in The Gauvin-Olson Debates on God and the Bible (Peter Eckler Publishing Company, 1921), p. 98]
And here is an example from the other end of the twentieth century:
As president, Washington continued his custom of earlier years; he remained outspoken and adamant in his promotion of the importance of Christianity in government. For example, in an October 9, 1789, letter to the Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church in North America, Washington declared:
While just government protects all in their religious rights, true religion provides to government its surest support.
He further declared:
It is impossible to rightly govern … without God and the Bible.
[David Barton, The Myth of Separation (Wallbuilder Press, 1992), p. 113, ellipsis in the original]
(This last one is classic: two fakes for the price of one. I also like how the author has sidestepped the megalomania problem by discreetly omitting the words “the world”.) And in the post-paper world of the internet it is easy to find the quotation in all stages of development and in a variety of contexts—here, for example, is one where the fake is nestled inside Washington’s farewell address, as found in the popular internet document entitled “Forsaken Roots”:
Consider these words from George Washington, the Father of our Nation, in his farewell speech on September 19, 1796: “It is impossible to govern the world without God and the Bible. Of all the dispositions and habits that lead to political prosperity, our religion and morality are the indispensable supporters. Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that our national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
In the cross-currents of conflicting influences that is the internet new variations seem to flourish; as another example James Montgomery Boice’s proverb that “without God in the picture we have no sure means of guiding government properly” collides with our saying to produce
You cannot govern without God in the picture.
Like the chainsaw-wielding character in a slasher movie, there’s no killing it.
Before going further I suppose it’s worth asking—is there any chance this thing could still somehow be genuine? Is there any possibility that George Washington is actually responsible for it? Could it somehow, in spite of the evidence, be “authentic”?—whatever that is supposed to mean.
The short answer is “no”—but that’s an answer I can’t give. Anything is possible. The difficulties are formidable—barring the discovery of further evidence. Anybody who wants to claim that the final (Russell) version is authentic needs to explain how Russell came by it after the lapse of nearly a century. Oral tradition won’t cut it. Nor, given his rank dishonesty in other matters, can we appeal to his upright scholarly character for the benefit of doubt. The Wilson version is similarly unredeemable; his dependence on Morris is manifest, and by far the simplest explanation is that he got it from that source. Dependence on the Morris version requires an explanation of all his other errors and distortions; given his sloppiness the simplest explanation—again—is that Morris got it from Paulding, whether directly or indirectly. If there is an “authentic” version, then, this is it.
Paulding certainly had the opportunity to pick up his story from oral tradition, and considering that he knew people who had known Washington it is conceivable that the chain of transmission was a short one. But we don’t know that. We know nothing of how he came by the story. Given the low quality of the other material he supplied from oral tradition, it is difficult to believe in this one, especially in view of its dissimilarity to anything Washington is known to have said on the subject. You can believe it if you like, I suppose, but would you bet your family business on that sort of information? Maybe somebody should ask Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson how far out on that limb he’s willing to go. Me, I’ll stay closer to the trunk of actual history.
So how did we get here, and what is the significance of it all? If there’s no moral to it, no larger meaning, isn’t it no longer history, but rather, as the philosopher Homer Simpson once observed, “just a bunch of stuff that happened”?
Well, the fact is, I don’t know and I don’t care. I have a story to tell, and I’ve told it. But there are some general observations perhaps worth making. I don’t insist on it, however.
Legends serve a purpose. National legends bind people together via a common collection of shared tales about their alleged past. The same goes for other sorts of institutional myths—religious, political, economic, corporate. Emotional resonance is what matters in these things—not truth. The Muslim who insists on the “reality” of the insubstantial early history of Islam, the Turk who claims there was no Armenian genocide, the American who believes that the founders fought hard to eliminate  slavery, all have in common that these things resonate with how he feels things ought to be. Stephen Colbert’s one enduring accomplishment may well be the concept of truthiness—things that feel true, no matter how baseless they may be.
When the North American colonies detached themselves from Great Britain to form a new national entity, its intellectual leaders set out to establish just such a body of national myth. The “history” taught in its schools is a superstructure erected on this foundation.
The men responsible for creating this national myth—which included both Jared Sparks and James Kirke Paulding—were confronted with a variety of tasks. Certain men—George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson—would be promoted as larger-than-life icons. Others—Benjamin Rush, for example, or John Adams—would be relegated to a more humble place. (Rush and Adams in fact complained of this process, considering Washington and Franklin at least to be overrated.)
In fitting out Washington for his new role as plaster saint, something had to be done about his religion. The fact is, there is relatively little information about George Washington’s religious beliefs. We do know—both from public expressions of piety and from private observations in letters—that Washington believed in a deity that interposed in human affairs, not in an absent creator who wound the universe up and let it run unattended. His church attendance and his occasional reference to “the divine author of our religion” show that he was a Christian, though not necessarily all that devout. And in fact, historically speaking, Washington’s religious views are unimportant. He influenced the course of events as a military and political leader, not as a theologian, a preacher, or a cult-leader. He could have believed in Yahweh, Zeus, or Cthulhu, as far that goes. The history comes out the same.
But to make him a role model for the youth he had to be pious, and so stories of his acts of piety had to be invented. Paulding (like Mason Weems) understood this perfectly well, and his chapter on Washington’s character makes his piety self-evident.
And this is one of the principal factors that contributed to the development and perpetuation of this thing. The need to instruct the young. Both Paulding and Wilson were avowedly writing for the instruction of youth, and, as we all know, scholarly standards are irrelevant in children’s books. (I disagree emphatically with this position, but nobody put me in charge of standards and practices.)
As the nation grew up, and various groups came into conflict with one another, factionalism impelled people to try to seize this or that national symbol for their particular interest. Religious groups were no exception. B. F. Morris and Howard Hyde Russell come in here. Both were interested (though for apparently different reasons) in claiming Washington as one of their own, and neither felt bound (for whatever reasons) by the standards of scholarship when a religious object was in view.
A growth like ours would have stood no chance in the antiseptic environment of serious history. This, no doubt, is why nothing like it is found in the editions of Jared Sparks, Worthington Chauncey Ford, or John C. Fitzpatrick. The far less inhospitable environments of children’s literature and religious controversy however were ideal places for such fungoids to grow. And the ease of transmission and lack of critical standards found on the present-day internet make it likely that this thing will survive and mutate into the foreseeable future.
And I don’t in fact see this one disappearing any time soon. It’s got too much going for it. It has George Washington, father of his country, saying something nice about the Bible, America’s best seller. It’s got God safely in charge, running the world. For all his criminal inaccuracy, Howard Hyde Russell was onto something. The marketplace has spoken—and once again, the will to believe triumphs over reality. It’s inspiring, in a hideous sort of way.
Copyright © 2005-2015