21 November 2010

Augustine and Astrology

I asked [Hippocrates] why it was then that the future was often correctly foretold by means of astrology. He gave me the only possible answer, that it was all due to the power of chance, a force that must always be reckoned with in the natural order. He said that people sometimes opened a book of poetry at random, and although the poet had been thinking, as he wrote, of some quite different manner, if often happened that the reader placed his finger on a verse which had a remarkable bearing on his problem. It was not surprising then, that the mind of man, quite unconsciously, through some instinct not within under his own control, should hit upon some thing that answered to his circumstances and the facts of a particular question. If so, it would be due to chance not to skill.

Book four of The Confessions, Augustine of Hippo. Section three. This amusingly follows a section in which Augustine claimed his mother's dreams were a sign to her from God that he would seek salvation in Christianity.  Superstition is always another person's sin, isn't it?

17 November 2010

Ten Centuries in Five Minutes (Updated)

Spotted this at the Buddhist blog.  The map doesn't just portray exchanges of territory, but territory seized by moving armies. Because there's no date given, this video is particularly enjoyable for students of history. I thought I was witnessing the unification of Germany under Bismarck until France invaded Spain, at which point I realized that was Napoleon's 'Confederation of the Rhine' earlier.

Special thanks to Neurovore of N^4 for letting me know the first video was taken down by the money-whoring powers that be.

14 November 2010

What To Do with Officer Friendly

Back in January, a police cruiser and I passed each other going separate directions on a deserted highway winding through a small town. I checked the rear-view mirror as he passed me, ever-wary of being pulled over. An Alabama State Trooper pulled me over once in my first year of driving because I neglected to notice a headlight out, but I'd avoided catching any police officer's attention -- until then. His lights came on, and I automatically switched lanes and pulled into a quiet residential street. I am always wary of being pulled over by the police because I rarely remember to put the state-mandated insurance card in my car. This week I had it in my leather jacket, though, and considered myself fortunate indeed.

Were this just a routine traffic stop, it wouldn't be particularly memorable -- but it ended up in my being frisked. I have never cared much for authority,  but neither have I ever been a troublemaker. Throughout my life people remarked at how well-behaved and nice I was. I followed the rules -- my rules -- for behaving decently, in part to keep authority away from me. When authority targeted me,  I feel anger and indignation.  Little wonder I found Stoicism, with its emphasis on individuals following principled rules for themselves and not depending in outside authorities, or anarchism with its ever-defiant contempt for outside authority, so likable.  Because I do not trust authority, and because I so seldom cross its path, when the officer came to my window I was nervous. I handed him my library card before realizing that wasn't what he wanted, and when I tried to hand him my insurance card he also got the car's title and various other papers.

His reason for pulling me over was that he thought my seatbelt was undone. It was not. I suppose ordinarily he would have bid me good-day, but my nervousness piqued his curiosity. He explained to me that when he spotted nervous behavior from people he detained, he assumed they were nervous for having something to hide. My autonomous nervous system was in full gear, my face sweaty, my hands shaking, and my arms visibly vibrating.  The officer, who I'll refer to as Officer Friendly,  suggested that someone carrying a few kilos of drugs might be nervous.

I chortled at the prospect of my being a drug courier, at which point he asked me if I minded stepping out of the car -- at which point he frisked me. By this time my fear was ebbing away, quickly, replaced by astonishment and amusement that I was being frisked. We talk for a while, and he's still concerned about my being nervous. He wants to know why.  Though I let him frisk me and even search my car, I wasn't so foolish enough to explain to Officer Friendly that I was wary of abusive policemen and of authority in general. Instead, I told him that I hadn't been pulled over in many years and was not expecting it.  He wanted to know why I didn't bump into police officers much, and as valiantly as I tried to tell him that I was a simple fellow who didn't clash with anyone, I think he got the feeling that I was some survivalist character who only came down from my mountain to fetch supplies. I suppose my leather jacket, scruffy face, and car interior didn't help: on this day, it contained my laundry bag, an overstuffed bookpack, perhaps a dozen books, and odds and ends resulting from a week of commuting.  He searched the car, repeatedly inquiring if I was sure I wasn't hiding anything -- if I was sure there were no drugs or concealed weapons in the car. "I'm a man of peace," I felt like saying as I stood in front of his cruiser's camera and resisted the urge to wave at it.

Officer Friendly and I chatted as he searched my car -- with my permission. I'd given it unthinkingly, not realizing he had to ask, and that I had the right to resist him. But he was such a friendly fellow, so likable, that I readily agreed to everything he asked and came away from the situation very amused.  I have no use for drugs, and my only use for a gun would be euthanasia in the event of terminal cancer or such,  so I had no objections to him searching. I had a copy of Red Emma Speaks  in my backpack, but I could just say that was for research purposes on the off-chance he recognized the book as being a collection of anarchist Emma Goldman's writings.  In retrospect, though I should have been more cautious, I still think he was justified by my behavior at the start. That has not stopped me from trying to correct my ignorance, which I did in part tonight when I watched this documentary from the American Civil Liberties Union, called "BUSTED: The Citizen's Guide to Surviving Police Encounters".

The movie consists of three skits in which police officers confront people on the road, on the sidewalks, and in their homes. Each skit has two parts: in the first, the confronted citizens respond as I did and wind up in jail when the police officers seize all the opportunities naivete has given them. In the second, as the ACLU spokesperson narrates, the people 'flex their rights'.  The acting only seemed wooden in the third skit, the video itself should prove helpful to Americans who do not know how to respond in police situations.

11 November 2010

Armistice Day


"I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind. Armistice Day has become Veterans' Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans' Day is not. So I will throw Veterans' Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don't want to throw away any sacred things."

(Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions)

Well, how do you do, Private William McBride, 
Do you mind if I sit down here by your graveside? 
And rest for awhile in the warm summer sun, 
I've been walking all day, and I'm nearly done. 
And I see by your gravestone you were only 19 
When you joined the glorious fallen in 1916, 
Well, I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean 
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene? 

Did they Beat the drum slowly, did the play the pipes lowly? 
Did the rifles fir o'er you as they lowered you down? 
Did the bugles sound The Last Post in chorus? 
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest? 

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind 
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined? 
And, though you died back in 1916, 
To that loyal heart are you forever 19? 
Or are you a stranger without even a name, 
Forever enshrined behind some glass pane, 
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained, 
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame? 

The sun's shining down on these green fields of France; 
The warm wind blows gently, and the red poppies dance. 
The trenches have vanished long under the plow; 
No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now. 
But here in this graveyard that's still No Man's Land 
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand 
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man. 
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned. 

And I can't help but wonder, now Willie McBride, 
Do all those who lie here know why they died? 
Did you really believe them when they told you "The Cause?" 
Did you really believe that this war would end wars? 
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame 
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain, 
For Willie McBride, it all happened again, 
And again, and again, and again, and again.

© 1976 Eric Bogle

06 November 2010

Message of Hope

(Though I transcribed this for those who can't watch larger videos, it is worth experiencing if you can. Sagan's voice is set against a very complementary piano piece and beautiful imagery.)

We were hunters and foragers; the frontier was everywhere. We were bounded only by the earth, and the ocean, and the sky. The open road still softly calls; our little terraqueous globe is the madhouse of those hundred thousand, millions of worlds. We, who cannot even put our own planetary home in order -- riven with rivalries and hatreds -- are we to venture out into space?

By the time we're ready to settle even the nearest other planetary system, we will have changed. The simple passage of so many generations will have changed us. Necessity will have changed us. We're...an adaptable species. It will not be we who reach Alpha Centauri and the other nearby stars --it will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths and fewer of our weaknesses: more confident, far-seeing, capable, and prudent.

For all our failings, despite our limitations and fallibilities, we humans are capable of greatness. What new wonders, undreamt of in our time, will we have wrought in another generation? And another? How far will our nomadic species have wandered by the end of the next century, and the next millennium?  Our remote descendants, safely arrayed on many worlds through the solar system and beyond, will be unified -- by their common heritage, by their regard for their home planet, and by the knowledge that whatever life may be, the only humans in all the universe come from Earth.

They will gaze up and strain to find the blue dot in their skies. They will marvel at how vulnerable the  repository of all our potential once was -- how perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings...how many rivers we had to cross  before we found our way.

(Carl Sagan, reading from The Pale Blue Dot)

01 November 2010

The Life of Ingersoll

Last spring I wrote a biographical essay on Robert Ingersoll for a Gilded Age class. Though initially a five to seven page paper, near the end of the semester we were instructed to distill our work down to 700 words. A year before writing this short biographical article, I wrote an essay in tribute to him, but 'The Life of Ingersoll' is intentionally more neutral. It focuses on him as a man in his times, working as a lawyer and political booster.


Lawyer, politician, and orator Robert Green Ingersoll (1833 - 1899) lived in an America still growing into its own identity. No longer a fledgling Republic, the United States of the Gilded Age could boast of a century of history and tumultuous social change. Ingersoll's gifts as an orator and a disciplined approach to his work enabled him to play a prominent role in the political and social world of his day, rubbing shoulders with presidents, industrialists, poets, and scholars. He died with his name a household word despite his humble beginnings as the son of an itinerant preacher.

Ingersoll’s career began in Peoria, Illinois, where he and his brother, Clark, established a law firm in 1858. Ingersoll’s oratorical strengths developed in part from his practice, building on his father’s legacy as a fiery abolitionist preacher.  He initially practiced criminal and civil law in and around Peoria, although later legal successes allowed him to settle in the lucrative field of corporate law. The Munn (1876) and Star Route (1882-1883) trials in particular established his national reputation as a powerful attorney.  In both politically charged affairs, Ingersoll defended individuals accused of defrauding the government against popular bias. 

Ingersoll’s triumph in these cases owed much to his rhetorical talents, to his exhaustive research, and to a gift for near-perfect recall that allowed him to put that research to use. Although not above the use of surgically-used emotional appeals, Ingersoll preferred to rely on an effective display of facts and unassailable logic. Demand for his talents never waned in either law or politics. Ingersoll’s abolitionist sentiments and repugnance for secession made a loyal Republican of the former Democrat, and he campaigned tirelessly for his party during the Reconstruction years. Only his hatred for the Democrats, the party of "rebellion and murder", rivaled his love for the Republican Party, which he believed represented the best of the American spirit. Ingersoll regarded Reconstruction as vital in preventing the triumphs of the Civil War from becoming moot. If the Republican party did not stay the course, he feared that “the Confederate army with ballots instead of bayonets, with Gen’l Andy Johnson at the head, will conquer at last.”

The Republican Party’s post-war history did not prove to Ingersoll’s liking. The period’s corruption and graft disappointed a man who believed so fervently in the need for, and the possibility of, honest government. He nearly retired from politics during the Hayes administration, disturbed by the President’s increasingly conciliatory attitude toward southern Democrats. Even so, he seized any opportunity to champion politicians with integrity: his “Plumed Knight” speech endorsing James Blaine swept the newspapers and kept his services in demand by Republicans seeking office. Ingersoll never held elected office, enjoying only an appointment as the Illinois Attorney General.  His political focus tended to be broader than that of the organized parties: in championing American ideals, he sought to expand them further and took up the banners of women’s suffrage, Civil Rights, and labor. While progressive in social matters,  he viewed himself as a conservative promoting and defending America’s promise of human equality. 

His eagerness to embrace these causes owed much to Ingersoll's humanist sympathies. He advocated American expansion to advance the cause of human progress, for he saw the Enlightenment principles embedded in the US Constitution as humanity's best hope for a better future. The works of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and others whom he read as a child engendered his faith in democracy as well as his freethinking belief in personal responsibility in matters of morality and seeking the truth.  Ingersoll promoted his worldview and religious devotion for liberty and progress in public lectures, capitalizing on his broad education to speak on philosophy, history, science, politics, and religion. His passion and approach earned him praise from progressives, but scathing criticism from orthodox clergymen who objected to his attacks upon organized religion. Attracting large audiences (as many as 50,000 in a given night), "Impious Pope Bob" rose to national prominence while advancing the cause of freethought in its golden age. 

Ingersoll’s life of political and cultural contributions are inseparable from the context of the Gilded Age. Caught between the Enlightenment and modernity, Ingersoll attempted to draw upon those older ideals to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world, drawing attention to the abuses of the day while advocating human progress.

Additional Resources:
  • Anderson, David. Robert Ingersoll. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.
  • Larson, Orvin. American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll. New York: Citadel Press, 1962. 
  • Greely, Rogert E. The Best of Robert Ingersoll. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1977.