27 August 2009

Quotation of the Day

You wanna know why we should honor the memory of Edward Kennedy? It's not his many accomplishments, it has nothing to do with Chappaquiddick or No Child Left Behind, it's not his family legacy or even his decades of service to Massachusetts and America. It is because even though he was a really rich guy, he never acted like those who were less fortunate than him were that way because they deserved to be. That alone places him high above the entire Republican Party and many of his fellow Democrats.

23 August 2009

Sorry about That

I've had things to deal with, both in the real word and online, and I've not been able to post here regularly. I have an online project I'm working on that I hope to launch shortly, and in the real world I have a massive house-reorganization project going on, so I'm not sure just how quickly I'll get back to this web log. Soon, if possible, but I've been saying that for days; even that last entry about the founding fathers and the first amendment was largely written ahead of time.

15 August 2009

On this Day in 1789

It's Saturday, 15 August, 1789. Congress is in session in New York—the first congress under the new constitution. Up for discussion: a proposed constitutional amendment, to be inserted between the sentence guaranteeing habeas corpus and the one prohibiting ex post facto laws. It was one part of a political compromise, a series of amendments to the new constitution meant to keep doubters in the fold and to entice the undecided off the fence. We know the result today as the Bill of Rights. This proposed amendment read:

No religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.

Peter Silvester (P, NY), an Albany lawyer who had held (and would continue to hold) a variety of governmental positions in the new republic, immediately spotted a problem with the wording. The opening words could be taken two ways. The intention was to keep the new government from passing a law that would establish religion, but could it not also be taken as a command to the congress to establish “no religion” as the law of the land? He “had some doubts of the propriety of the mode of expression used in this paragraph. He apprehended that it was liable to a construction different from what had been made by the committee. He feared it might be thought to have a tendency to abolish religion altogether.”

Where on earth did this fear come from? Well, you have to remember that the issue of disestablishment (we would call it "separation of church and state") was hot at the time, and that Virginia had recently emerged from a bruising battle on the subject when Patrick Henry had proposed a bill levying a tax to support all teachers of religion, a bill famously opposed and defeated by the efforts of James Madison—the author of the present amendment. You have to remember that in European states of the time the established church was generally tax-supported, and that there was no guarantee that religion could survive without that support. (And as we will see from a later point made by Benjamin Huntington, there was some sentiment afloat that people ought to be required to support some religious institution, at any rate.) So, at any rate, the first order of business was to rewrite Madison's proposal to rule out the possibility of the Federal government being called upon to establish "no religion" by law.

John Vining (P, DE) proposed fixing the problem by “transposing the two members of the sentence.” I suppose he had in mind a wording like “No law shall be [enacted] to establish religion,” or something in that vein. Elbridge Gerry (A, MA) suggested the reading "no religious doctrine shall be established by law”—a version considerably narrower than anything else proposed so far, in that it would have allowed Congress to set standards for religious practice, presumably, or at least left that door wide open, even if it kept the government from establishing doctrine.

Roger Sherman (P, CT), Framer and Declaration signer, now derailed the discussion altogether. Even though politics had already decreed this was a dead issue, he reiterated that he "thought the amendment altogether unnecessary, inasmuch as Congress had not authority whatever delegated to them by the constitution to make religious establishments; he would, therefore, move to have it struck out.” Daniel Carroll (P, MD) quickly reminded him of these political realities, "As the rights of conscience are, in their nature, of peculiar delicacy, and will little bear the gentlest touch of governmental hand; and as many sects have concurred in opinion that they are not well secured under the present constitution, he said he was much in favor of adopting the words. He thought it would tend more towards conciliating the minds of the people to the Government than almost any other amendment he had heard proposed. He would not contend with gentlemen about the phraseology, his object was to secure the substance in such a manner as to satisfy the wishes of the honest part of the community."

James Madison, Jr. (A, VA) patiently explained again the intended meaning of the amendment: "that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience." He once again went over the political necessity of the amendment: “Whether the words are necessary or not, he did not mean to say, but they had been required by some of the State Conventions, who seemed to entertain an opinion that under the clause of the constitution, which gave power to Congress to make all laws necessary and proper to carry into execution the constitution, and the laws made under it, enabled them to make laws of such a nature as might infringe the rights of conscience, and establish a national religion; to prevent these effects he presumed the amendment was intended, and he thought it as well expressed as the nature of the language would admit.”

Benjamin Huntington (P, CT) now took the bull by the horns. He said “that he feared, with the gentleman first up on this subject, that the words might be taken in such a latitude as to be extremely hurtful to the cause of religion.” The underlying fear, no doubt, was the possibility that if state support for religion was removed, religion itself might wither away altogether. Huntington made a rather lame argument that “The ministers of their congregations to the eastward were maintained by the contributions of those who belonged to their society; the expense of building meeting-houses was contributed in the same manner. These things were regulated by bylaws. If an action was brought before a Federal Court on any of these cases, the person who had neglected to perform his engagements could not be compelled to do it; for a support of ministers, or building of places of worship, might be construed into a religious establishment.” He felt that the 1663 Rhode Island Charter (then over a century old) was radical enough; it guaranteed that dissenters from the Church of England would be tolerated (as long as they kept quiet about it) but didn’t actually encourage them. “He hoped, therefore, the amendment would be made in such a way as to secure the rights of conscience, and a free exercise of the rights of religion, but not to patronize those who professed no religion at all.” And with this display of bigotry and intolerance Benjamin Huntington vanished from the debate.

If James Madison (or anybody else for that matter) thought Huntington’s remarks were worth responding to it doesn’t appear in the record. He went back to the main point of the wording, and suggested adding the word national before religion, which would have created the following result:

No national religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.

He thought (wrongly) that this “would satisfy the minds of honorable gentlemen. He believed that the people feared one sect might obtain a pre-eminence, or two combine together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform. He thought if the word national was introduced, it would point the amendment directly to the object it was intended to prevent.”

Samuel Livermore (P, NH) was impatient with this nit-picking; “he did not wish them to dwell long on the subject.” He proposed a substitute amendment:

Congress shall make no laws touching religion, or infringing the rights of conscience.

This is an electrifying moment; suddenly we see the beginning of the actual language that will become the First Amendment. It's not there yet, of course; we still have "infringing the rights of conscience" rather than "prohibiting the free exercise thereof", but it's on its way. For the moment, however, the proposal just lies there; under consideration is Madison's proposal to add the word national to his version of the amendment.

Elbridge Gerry (A, MA), Declaration signer and opponent of the new constitution, who had earlier in the debate suggested the language "no religious doctrine" to replace "no religion", now objected strongly to the term national, in that a Federal, and not a National, government was under consideration. Madison defended his suggestion by observing "that the words ‘no national religion shall be established by law,’ did not imply that the Government was a national one,” but he withdrew his motion regardless in favor of Livermore’s version. The vote was then taken on that, and the amendment passed 31-20. Thus, had this been the end of the story, the First Amendment would have read:

Congress shall make no laws touching religion, or infringing the rights of conscience.

Of course as we know these were not the words that were going to become enshrined as part of the first article of the Bill of Rights; the Senate would have to pass its version, and a compromise would be hammered out between them, but for the moment their work was done, and it was on to consider such matters as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the freedom to peaceably assemble (one representative compared the last to the freedom to wear a hat). But the big effort of the day was over an amendment that would have given the right to the people to instruct their representatives. The argument over that one was heated, and ended with the defeat of the proposal. That debate in fact appears to have taken much longer than the debates about the various freedoms altogether.

And that's the way it was on this date in history two hundred twenty years ago.

13 August 2009

More Fake Quotation Sightings

Over at A Simple Prop John M. Lynch gives us an account of a double screw-up by one Anna Falling, who is running for mayor of Tulsa. In the course of a piece about putting a creationist exhibit in the local zoo she finishes off with the following inanity:

Thank you again for your prayers as we proceed to bring God back to our seat of government. As George Washington stated on Feb. 22, 1732, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible”

Of course you'll recognize that this "quotation" is nothing of the sort; it is in fact a misquotation of a misquotation of something attributed to Washington by an 1835 biographer on the basis of the recollection of an unknown person. (See here for the references.) But the classic touch is that the Father of his Country was himself a squalling infant on the day he is supposed to have said this, being either just born (if the Gregorian calendar is meant) or eleven days old (by the Julian calendar then in use). Epic fail, Anna. Maybe you could use a little refresher course in American History.

From the idiotic we move to the ought-to-know-better class of writer. J. Grant Swank, Jr. of Portland Maine is no backwoods bumpkin, having attended classes at Harvard Divinity School, where the standards are high. And yet, a column attributed to him at the somewhat shadowy Post-Chronicle contains no fewer than three fake quotations. First up, a fake George Washington prayer. Swank wrote:

President George Washington wrote a prayer addressed to "O most glorious God, in Jesus Christ" and ended it with this: "Let me live according to those holy rules which thou hast this day prescribed in Thy Holy Word. Direct me to the true object, Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life. Bless O Lord all the people of this land."

This is actually from the Sunday evening prayer in the notorious Washington prayer book, a well-known literary hoax. (The handwriting in the document bears no resemblance to that of Washington, for one thing.) Also, the passage given as the ending is in fact taken from the middle of the piece. The fraud was exposed in 1926, not long after the document's "discovery" in a trunk (shades of William Henry Ireland) belonging to a later member of Washington's family.

Next up (after a Jefferson quotation I'll deal with later on, as it's not entirely fake) comes a familiar Madison fake:

Religion is the basis and foundation of government. We have staked the whole future of American civilization not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.

Oh mighty Jehovah, where to begin with this one? This quotation is a little like a snowball rolling down a hill, gathering bits and pieces of extraneous material along the way. There are two genuine phrases in it. Well, more-or-less genuine. The first is "the basis and foundation of government." Madison quoted these words from the title of the 1776 Virginia Bill of Rights: "A DECLARATION OF RIGHTS made by the representatives of the good people of Virginia, assembled in full and free Convention; which rights do pertain to them, and their posterity, as the basis and foundation of government." It will be noted that the words refer here to individual rights, and not to religion. Madison only used them to indicate the source of his claim that "'the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his religion, according to the dictates of conscience,' is held by the same tenure with all our other rights." For more on how the fake quote was manufactured take a look at this cool exegesis by Jim Allison.

The second genuine phrase is "the capacity of mankind for self government". Madison in fact used that phrase in The Federalist Papers (XXXIX), but nothing else in this is genuine. At some point in the mid-twentieth century somebody used the phrase as the basis for a new concoction: "We have staked the whole future of American civilization not upon the power of government, far from it, but upon the capacity of mankind for self-government." A variant version also circulated; by 1958 the two were combined into a single frankenquote with some nonsense about the Ten Commandments tacked on to the end. A more extended explanation is available here.

Other than these two phrases, the entire quotation is a fake.

Next up we have this from Patrick Henry:

It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not religionists, but by Christians, not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, property, and freedom of worship here.

Regular readers of this web log will recognize this as a 1956 comment from The Virginian. There is nothing of Patrick Henry in this at all.

So, these are the three out-and-out fakes. In addition, however, at least two of the others have serious problems as quotations. First, let's take a look at his Jefferson quotation:

God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis—a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever.

You probably recognize the bulk of this as coming from Notes on the State of Virginia. But what about the opening sentence, "God who gave us life gave us liberty"? It doesn't belong here. Where did it come from? Well, it's a fragment from A Summary View of the Rights of British America: "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them." It has been forcibly joined to the Notes on the State of Virginia passage without any indication that that the two quotations do not actually belong together. The actual leading sentences ran in the original: "For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labor." This juxtaposition may have been suggested by the quotations on panel 3 of the Jefferson Memorial; it is still sloppy work.

And second comes an alleged Lincoln quotation:

The ways of God are mysterious and profound beyond all comprehension. 'Who by searching can find Him out?' God only knows the issue of this business. He has destroyed nations from the map of history for their sins. Nevertheless, my hopes prevail generally above my fears for our Republic. The times are dark, the spirits of ruin are abroad in all their power, and the mercy of God alone can save us.

Now first, I have to note once again that we are dealing with words not actually written or spoken by the alleged author, but rather words put into his mouth by the recollection of another person. In this case they are words attributed to Lincoln by the Reverend Byron Sunderland (occasional Senate chaplain) some ten years (1872) after Lincoln allegedly said them (late 1862). In a letter Sunderland recalled the visit with President Lincoln, and produced a passage of over five hundred words that he attributed to him. Is this likely? I'm going to ask the reader to engage in a little thought exercise. Think back to a speech you heard in 1999. Do you think you can recall accurately a passage of five hundred words from it? How much of it do you think you would recall accurately? A short passage, yes, a story, maybe, but much more than that? No, it's not bloody likely. The editors of Recollected words of Abraham Lincoln likewise note: "The length of this recollection alone makes it dubious as anything more than a Sunderland sermon based on a certain amount of Lincoln text."

Oh, and another thing—this is actually two sections of Sunderland's recollected speech jammed together. The first two sentences are the opening; the remainder is the closing. A great many words have been silently omitted.

All in all not a bad showing of dishonesty or ignorance. Three fakes and two problematic quotations. Swank could hardly have done better if he were trying to provide me with an object-lesson on the use of fake quotations. I do wish he could have seen his way clear to use the Franklin "primitive Christianity" quotation; it would have rounded out the fakes he did use nicely.

So we have a would-be mayor and a religion columnist each doing their bit to make sure that fake history marches on. It's hard to know what to say. Is there any likelihood that either of them will, oh, say—mend their goddamn ways? It's probably too much to hope for. Each of them made a conscious decision to abandon their principles to pimp for their faith, or so it would appear. Like all good advertisers they put their product above truth.

Update: Anna Falling fixed the minor error of attributing a fake quotation to the day Washington was born, but she left the fake quotation intact. I left this comment at her site:

Okay, cool, you fixed the minor error. What about fixing the major one? The fact is, Washington never said these words. They are an 1893 misquotation of an 1867 misquotation of words attributed to him by a biographer in 1835 on the strength of a recollection by an anonymous person. See http://fakehistory.wordpress.com/2009/07/03/fake-quotations-washington-and-governing-without-god/ for the gory details.

Will this make it through comment moderation? I suspect not. [14 August 2009]

10 August 2009

Hudson's Bay High School Forty-Year Reunion

I am having trouble writing anything, or to be more accurate, completing anything. I've got several rants started now, but nothing that comes to any sort of conclusion. And for the third year in a row I've managed to miss Stan Freberg's birthday (7 August); last year I had a six-part appreciation written I intended to launch starting on the 7th, but the crash of my laptop took the material with it. Damn it.

I survived my class reunion (Hudson's Bay High School, class of 1969). I don't do well in social situations, being subject to random panic attacks brought on (usually) by the presence of large numbers of people, no matter whether they be strangers or people I know well. I had to de-stress for a bit, but I don't think anybody noticed. I suppose it doesn't really matter. I got to talk to several people I've known since grade school, and a couple of others I haven't seen in forty years. I even exchanged a few words with the girl I secretly wrote a symphony* for back in high school. (She remembered me, if a bit vaguely.) The organizers did one hell of a job; everything went smoothly (or if it didn't, they concealed it well). There were old school newspapers and yearbooks to leaf through, and a variety of foods to munch on, and adequate spaces to congregate in. It was too damn hot, but that was Nature's fault, not the organizers'.

I'd really hoped to see my one-time best friend there, but I got an e-mail from him saying he wasn't up to traveling, being between operations as it were. And another long-time friend comes to mind on these occasions; I haven't seen her since the early eighties, and never will again, unless time turns back on itself, or we meet again in some sort of afterlife. But it was interesting, and sometimes odd, catching up with people I haven't seen in decades.

There was one illuminating moment. I'd tried to write a piece about girls in math some time back, and I'd thought back to my high school "accelerated" Geometry course, where the boys outnumbered the girls by about a two-to-one ratio. The class was intended for the top students in math, but the thing I was struck by is the difference between the boys and girls. While the boys were all at least above-average students, the girls were pretty much only the very cream of the cream, academically speaking. (Two of them at least were straight-A students.) Where were (I wondered) the high-scoring girls who weren't at the very top of the class? Well, just as I was leaving, I talked briefly with one of my former classmates, and she had had my very thought, it seems, except that she had it at the time, not some decades later. She told me how, looking around at the handful of girls in the class, she had thought to herself in effect—they're all brains? what am I doing here? I doubt very much that any of the boys in that class would have had that reaction. Still, that's probably a topic for another day. Or never.

And there was one awkward moment. I'd ridden in with a long-time friend (her sister and I had hung out together in grade school) from out of town, and as we were heading out, I suddenly ran into a couple of people I'd missed during the rest of the event. On the one hand I was really interested in catching up; on the other, we were on our way out. I cut things short by indicating that my friend was waiting for me. "Are you two married?" comes the question. For me this was completely out of left field—yeah, right, I should be so lucky. I promptly disclaimed the honor—and she remarked, "Well, you didn't have to look so horrified."

This is the part where I should say something to round things off, but I can't think of a damn thing. Hurray for the buzzards, I guess, or the eagles, or whatever it was that we were some forty years back up that winding road, and maybe we'll hook up again five or ten years down it. I won't be there—but I say that every time, and still I keep showing up. Must be the karma. It does seep in, no matter how often you seal the cracks.


*Okay, it wasn't a symphony; it was the first movement for a symphony. In D minor. And I never orchestrated it. It probably would have been saner to, say, actually ask her out, but I have my limitations, and one of them was approaching one of the most popular girls in school on that particular mission. I probably should have anyway. God, she was bright, and beautiful—and still is, approaching sixty.

01 August 2009

Eating by a Small Waterfall

The best hamburgers in Portland were served at a place called The Carnival. You watched them cooked over leaping flames, and then you carried them over to a round carousel-like arrangement where every condiment known to man could be found. Unlimited pickles were my personal enthusiasm; none of this three doled out and spaced carefully about the bun stuff. Weather permitting you could eat outside by a small waterfall, and watch squirrels zip about in the vegetation. I know they had a variety of other food, but the hamburgers are what I remember.

The decor consisted mainly of old circus posters, possibly genuine, along with paintings of clowns and performing animals. The dining area was entirely surrounded by windows, and at least some of them looked out into the greenery. Once in 1969 my father had a flat tire not too far away, and he parked my brother and me there with cokes while he went off to get it fixed. For reasons too complicated to explain here (it's part of a whole other story) I was clutching a sack containing two infant iguanas at the time. They were now scrabbling around quite vigorously and I had visions of them clawing through the side of the sack and racing off into the depths of the restaurant. Fortunately nothing of the sort occurred, but the fantasy made an otherwise forgettable experience memorable.

A few years back I took my niece and family to the Carnival; the name had changed to the Carousel but in other respects it was much the same. The decor was somewhat the worse for wear, and the new owner was present. It turned out that we were the last customers to eat there under the old regime; the next day it was closing down for remodeling, and when it reopened, it would reopen as a teriyaki place. The new owner spoke vaguely of keeping at least some of the original menu, but it was apparent that the old days were pretty much gone. Presumably forever.

Today, for no good reason—I was trying out a supposedly new MySpace feature, actually—I tried invoking the Carnival genii, forgetting for the moment that it was no more. It wasn't there; neither was the Carousel. I googled it finally—and finally turned up a set of pictures. It seems the teriyaki place never thrived, and closed down not all that long after opening. From the looks of it the building just sat for awhile. Somebody had posted a set of pictures of the place as it looked not long before it was torn down.

Apparently there's nothing there now but parking lot. I don't think I'll bother to check it out, to tell the truth. There was always something a little sad about the place, a little tacky, but damn, they made good hamburgers.

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