Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Resuming an Irregular Schedule

Forcing myself to write something three times a week is a pain, and the world is filled with too much pain already.  For that reason, I am going back to posting something only when I have something meaningful to say.  Hopefully, that will improve the quality of my posts. Cheers!

I will also mention that Barnes & Nobles is offering a deal on my book -- More than $20 off the cover price and free shipping. Such a deal.  It can be ordered at:

Monday, April 19, 2010

Pondering the Cruelty of April 19th

In his poem “The Waste Land,” T. S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month of the year. ” Looking back into history, the 19th certainly is one of the cruelest days in April.

Today is the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, the horrors of Waco, and the beginning of the SS assault on the Warsaw Ghetto, days which saw the senseless murder of hundreds of innocent men, women and children. Today is also the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and the start of the American Revolution.

These are interesting events to ponder in light of the angry mobs of Teabaggers who seem so abundant across America, and a recent poll by the Pew Research Center showing that four out of five Americans distrust the Federal Government.

For those Americans who would rather place their trust in a free market, there is the fraud investigation of Goldman Sachs, and the airline companies who are willing to bet the lives of their passengers and crews that the volcanic cloud covering Europe is really harmless and that regulators are being too cautious.

Sitting here in Edinburgh, with that volcanic cloud drifting over my head and the smell of ash in the air, I must also wonder what the fundamentalist Christians of America would be doing if this cloud were drifting above them. Preaching the doom of Armageddon I suspect.

Much of America’s discontent is tied to the economy. Unemployment, home foreclosures, lost savings, struggling to survive have been all too common in America for the past two years. People want to put the blame on someone, and government is such an easy target. But the government is made up of Americans with the same positive and negative traits found in all of us.

If we truly want a better nation, perhaps it is time we stopped complaining, stopped whining, stopped pretending that our government is some alien life form. Perhaps it is time for us to check our racism and bigotry, to recognize that religious freedom means respecting the views of others.

America needs to open a meaningful dialogue, to start looking for real solutions. We need to stop shouting at each other and start listening. We need to look for points of agreement, points of compromise, points that can help us build a better America.

April, after all, is the beginning of Spring, a season of rebirth.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Culloden and Scottish Independence

On April 16, 1746, at Culloden Moor outside of Inverness, a British Force under the command of the Duke of Cumberland defeated an army of Scottish clansmen under the leadership of Bonnie Prince Charlie. 


Historians record Culloden as the last military battle on British soil – I guess they put German air raids during the two world wars in a different category.   Regardless, it was the last time a Scottish Army and an English Army – please ignore the fact that there were Scots and English on both sides – met in armed conflict against one another.

For Scots, the battle marks the beginning of period of intense persecution by the English.  Following the battle, the Duke of Cumberland initiated a ruthless policy of “pacification” against the highland Scots that earned him the title of “Butcher.”  The English government destroyed the old clan system, banned the kilt and tartan, and ultimately drove countless Scots from their native land, my ancestors among them.

Today, Culloden is one of the many reminders of Scotland’s never ending struggle against the English. Another is painted on the wall of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, words from The Declaration of Arbroath, Scotland’s Declaration of Independence written in 1320.  “For so long as one hundred men remain alive, we shall never under any conditions submit to the domination of the English. It is not for glory or riches or honours that we fight, but only for liberty, which no good man will consent to lose but with his life.”

Scotland’s struggle for independence continues today.  It can be seen in the re-established Scottish Parliament and the Scottish National Party’s campaign for freedom from English oppression.  And it can be found in the hearts of Scots at home and in exile around the world.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

145 Years Later, the Harm of Booth’s Actions Still Linger

On April 14, 1865, five days after Lee’s surrender, John Wilkes Booth shot and mortally wounded President Abraham Lincoln. In doing so, Booth did more harm to the South than Sherman did in his “March to the Sea.”

The plot sought the simultaneous assassinations of Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. That evening, Lewis T. Powell broke into Seward's home and seriously wound the secretary. George A. Atzerodt, who was to kill the vice president, lost his nerve and fled. Booth succeeded.

After shooting Lincoln, Booth shouted, "Sic semper tyrannis! [Thus always to tyrants] – the South is avenged!" Unfortunately for the South, Booth’s actions did not avenge the Confederate cause, instead it helped to bring almost a century of suffering to the average southerner.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the South was in ruins. Its infrastructure ravaged, its class structure reordered, and its economy destroyed. Decisions needed to be made concerning how the rebellious states should be treated in the aftermath of America’s deadliest war.

Looking back at reconstruction, we see two very distinct and different approaches to the rebuilding of the nation. Lincoln always took the position that the Southern states had not left the Union. By the end of 1863, he announced a plan for reconstruction that granted amnesty to all who would swear allegiance to the Union, and recognized the state governments as soon as ten percent of its citizens took the oath.

When Johnson became President, he followed a similar course of action, but lacking the political clout of Lincoln, lost control of reconstruction to the “Radical Republicans” in Congress.

Congress, as is often the case, proved to be far more responsive – not always a good thing – to the emotions of the citizens of the North. Here were the abolitionists who had long pushed for an end of slavery, as well as the families who had sacrificed half a million lives in the cause of preserving the Union and ending slavery. Here too were those who saw Lincoln as one of the nation’s greatest leaders. One only needs to read Walt Whitman’s poem “Oh Captain My Captain” to understand the emotion of many ordinary Americans in the North.

Congress wanted blood. Congress wanted Southern leaders to prostrate themselves and beg forgiveness from the North for the terrible price inflicted upon the nation. As a result, marshal law was declared, the South was divided into military districts and much harsher standards were set for readmission into the union.

Ultimately, Southern states would be readmitted, but the average southerner would suffer for generations to come. The South would enter a period when it was basically an economic colony of the North, rather than a region equal of standing. Many within the old Southern elite would regain their power, but many of the independent farmers of the South, the ones who had never owned slaves, would lose their land, becoming tenant farmers. Former slaves would struggle under an oppressive system of inequality, and the South become a isolated region that suffered the extremes of poverty.

The actions of the Radical Republicans in Congress also contributed to a North-South animosity that lingers today, along with the racism, the fear of strangers and the religious intolerance of the South.

Perhaps, if Lincoln had lived, had he been there to continue to provide the leadership America so desperately needed, things would have been very different. Personally, I think Booth did a terrible disservice to America, North and South.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Life Without the Bomb: A Little Alternative History

Alternative history is a fascinating way of looking at the world. In my last blog entry, I speculated on a world without the bomb. Some may have assumed that I saw a world of peace and happiness. I did not.

While the bomb took the lives of a great many innocent people, it may have saved the lives of a significantly larger number of others. I am not talking about American forces who might have been asked to invade Japan. Personally, I do not think such an invasion would have been necessary. Japan was close to surrender before the bomb was dropped and conventional bombing was having a devastating affect.

Without the bomb, I think the world might well have fought the infamous World War III that was so popular with science fiction writers of the period, a war that would have been far more destructive than either of its predecessors.

During the Cold War both sides were equally afraid of a nuclear war. As a result, wars during those years were limited to conventional weapons and often involved surrogates, rather than a direct confrontation between the world’s two superpowers. Atomic weapons were a deterrent.

In a world with only conventional weapons, a direct confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union may have been unavoidable. The two nations came very, very close several times.

For example, I think the bomb prevented Stalin from being more aggressive in the late 1940s. After all, at the end of World War II, the most powerful conventional military force on the planet probably belonged to the Soviet Union, not the U.S.

Thinking about the alternatives, I suspect that the bomb saved a great many lives, just not in the way we have always believed. I also believe that a demonstration of the bomb’s power would have been sufficient. Unfortunately, we have not reached the point where we value human life above all else, especially the lives of those we dehumanize during times of war.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Questions About the Bomb

With the recent death of Morris Jeppson, there remains only one living member of the Enola Gay flight crew who dropped the first atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. He is Theodore Van Kirk, the navigator.

Personally, I have always been fascinated with the history of the bomb, perhaps because I was born one year and one day after Hiroshima, and as a young boy I had a Sunday School teacher who talked about going into Nagasaki with the American military after the explosion.

The history of the bomb, at least from the American perspective, seems to begin in August, 1939, with a letter from Albert Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt, telling him of research “into a new and important source of energy” that might be used to build very powerful bombs. As Einstein explained, “A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.”

As a result of that letter, the Manhattan Project was formed and ultimately the atomic bomb was created. The secrecy surrounding the project was so great that even Harry Truman did not learn of the project until he became President after Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. It was less than four months before Truman would be faced with the most important decision of his life -- Should America drop the bomb? In fact, no one was certain what would happen when a atomic bomb was detonated until the Trinity test on July 16, 1945, less than a month before the bomb was used in war.

For most of my lifetime, the United States justified the use of the atomic bomb with the simple explanation that it eliminated the need for an invasion of Japan and as a result it saved a million American lives. This explanation has been questioned in recent years, as scholars have gained access to documents that were classified for decades.

Some of the questions now being asked, include:
• Why was the bomb dropped at a time when Japan was already close to surrender?
• Why didn’t the U.S. simply demonstrate the power of the bomb to the world without killing so many Japanese civilians?
• Did Truman use the bomb to gain the upper hand in negotiations with Joseph Stalin?
• Would America have used the bomb on Europeans?
• Did the U.S. spend so much money developing the bomb, that it had to use it?

While I have my own perspective on these questions, I do not pretend to have the final answers. Needless to say, these questions, and others like them, promises to provide scholars with a heated debate for decades to come.

Today, I look at the bomb from the perspective of someone born at the beginning of the atomic age; someone who spend forty-five years of his life living in a Cold War with the constant threat of nuclear war; someone who now lives in a world where nuclear weapons continue to proliferate as the rhetoric between opposing sides grows louder. Today, I must wonder what would the world be like if Einstein had not written his letter to Roosevelt; if the Manhattan Project had failed; if Truman had not given the order to drop the bomb, if atomic power had remained undiscovered?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Imagine Jesus in an Apache Helicopter

A video recently leaked to the public shows two American helicopters killing 12 people on a Baghdad street, including a Reuters news photographer and his driver. The military wrote it off as an accident. Included in the tape are the words of the Americans involved, men who seemed to take pleasure in killing the people on the ground below.

At one point, a van arrives to pick up the wounded. The helicopters open fire on the van, wounding two children. One American comments, “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.”

War is a terrible thing for many reasons, not the least of which is the way those involved protect themselves by dehumanizing others. It is always easier to kill a stranger, a faceless enemy, someone who is perceived as less than human, especially from the sky.

History is filled with examples. When the English invaded Ireland in the 17th Century, they called the Irish “savages,” just as they did Native Americans. It was much easier to kill a savage. In the Civil War, the opposing armies were no longer Americans, they became “Yankees” and “Rebels,” each a dirty word to the other side. In World War II the Allies fought the “Krauts” and the “Japs,” and in Vietnam the enemy became known as the “Gooks.” All of these terms helped dehumanize the enemy – be it soldier or civilian.

During World War I, propaganda reported that German soldiers ate babies, German nurses poured water onto the ground rather than give it to wounded enemy soldiers. During World War II, cartoons and movies demonized the Germans and Japanese. In the United States, Americans of Japanese descent were interned in concentration camps.

After each of these wars, once the combatants had an opportunity to meet their enemy, they discovered that those on the opposite side were not very different from themselves. They didn’t eat babies, they weren’t evil people, they were mostly honest, hard working folks, people who had not wanted to go to war any more than most Americans.

In a nation that loves to wave the banner of Christianity, too many seem to have forgotten the little song they were taught in Sunday School – “Red and yellow, black and white / they are precious in his sight / Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

Jesus sure as hell would not shoot at children, or anyone else for that matter.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Still Living on the Frontier

The Mind of the South, published in 1941, is a fascinating book written by a North Carolina journalist named W. J. Cash. The book was the product of more than a decade of research, observation, thought and writing. Its significance can be found in the fact that, after almost sixty years, the book remains in print.

One of the more interesting observations Cash made about the South was that many in the region continue to retain attitudes and characteristic common to the frontier. Looking around today, one might make the same comment about the nation as a whole.

Historically, American’s frontier was the area just west of civilization, over the next hill or down the river, as the nation expanded from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was a land with few rules, where survival depended upon an assortment of attributes. For most frontier folk these qualities included honesty, strength, hard work and cooperation with one’s neighbors. Less positive qualities included thievery, mayhem and general skullduggery. As a result, honest folks tended to distrust strangers.

Frontier life was a lonely, isolated existence. Except for occasional trips to the general store for a few basic supplies, or church when the circuit riding preacher came to town, people lived pretty much to themselves. They survived on the fruits of their own labor, enjoyed the good times and did not always make it during the bad times. It was a hard life, filled with uncertainties. It hardened people to the outside world, and against forces they did not understand or could not control.

As civilization followed the frontier, it brought with it greater security, great dependence on others, and a far more comfortable life for most Americans. It also brought rules and regulations, as well as more government.

Government helps to make our lives more comfortable and secure. It also provides opportunities, through education, improved transportation and enhanced communication. Unfortunately, a great many folks still distrust their own government.

As Cash noted, the frontier mentality lingers, and if one reflects upon the characteristics needed for survival during those earlier times, it helps explain the attitude of many modern Americans – libertarians, teabaggers, fundamentalist Christians and others who distrust the outside world, the government and all those people with a different point-of-view.

Abraham Lincoln noted long ago that ours is “a government of the people, by the people, for the people,” but if we don’t start trusting our own government a little more, we may very well “perish from the earth.”

Friday, April 2, 2010

Searching for the Fountain of Youth: A Brief Florida History

As a many-generation, native Floridian, I must note that today marks the 497th anniversary of the discovery of Florida by Europeans. While Native Americans have lived in the area for more than ten thousand years, sadly their history must be left to the archeologists.

On April 2, 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon, a Spanish explorer, landed somewhere along the northeastern coast of modern day Florida. The year 1513 seemed like a long time ago, until I noticed that the pub where I had dinner last evening was in a building constructed in 1434.

Old Juan came to Florida searching for the Fountain of Youth, which he never found. If he had bothered to ask, I could have directed him to Downtown St. Petersburg and a drinking fountain, enclosed by a small courtyard, with the words “Fountain of Youth” chiseled in the stone above it. Of course, the last time I checked, the city had turned off the water to the fountain.

Regardless, millions of Europeans made the journey to Florida over the subsequent centuries. In fact, while the rest of the Atlantic coast between Canada and Cuba went from British colony to statehood, Florida changed hands several times -- controlled by the Spanish, French and British, before becoming a U.S. territory with Andrew Jackson, “the old Indian hater,” serving as the first territorial governor. Jackson spent most of his time in Florida making life miserable for the few remaining Native Americans left in the region.

In 1845, Florida became the twenty-seventh state, but clearly had second thoughts, because in 1861 Florida became the third state to secede from the Union, certainly one of the dumber decisions made by the Florida Legislature, although there have been many.

A bit of Civil War trivia concern’s Florida’s Confederate Governor, John Milton, who committed suicide at the end of the war, saying "Death would be preferable to reunion." Makes one wonder about the intelligence level of politicians who only speak in sound bites.

After the war, Florida began separating itself from the rest of the South, to the point that many Deep South southerners consider Florida a “Yankee” state, and they are probably right. Instead of growing cotton, rice and cigarette tobacco, like the rest of the South, Floridians raised cattle, grew oranges and started rolling cigars.

Warm Florida winters are what made the difference. They helped Florida attract folks from the North – investors, railroad builders, developers and lots of tourists searching for the “Fountain of Youth.”

Thursday, April 1, 2010

81st Anniversary

Today is the 81st Anniversary of the Loray Mill Strike in Gastonia, North Carolina. You may want to read my essay in today's Charlotte (NC) Observer. My forthcoming book is the first biography of the woman who was co-director of the strike. You will need to cut and paste the link.