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Clio's Temple

Blog

Brute memorization

Posted on November 19, 2013 at 3:27 PM Comments comments (0)
Both on the way to and from Greenwood today, I heard readings of the Gettysburg Address. The first was delivered by NPR journalists. The second was delivered by a variety of persons from different fields; all 5 living presidents participated.

This put me in mind of Mrs. Harrell's 4th Grade class.  She was a great one for making us memorize and recite in class. I suppose there will always be differences of opinion about this. Some progressive educators pooh-pooh requiring students to commit speeches or poetry to memory, arguing that this doesn't build the higher-order learning they think is important.

I suppose there's some truth in such views. However, I feel fortunate that I was one of those unlucky ones who had to do routine recitations in class. As I recall, Lincoln developed the characteristic cadences of his speech from his voracious reading. I further recall that the Bible, Shakespeare's plays, and Robert Burns's poetry all had major influences on the way he spoke in public. Not that I will ever have Lincoln's ability to say a lot in a few words; but I can dream, can't I?

When one has a head full of trivia, the random connections one sometimes makes can be interesting.  The 100th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address came exactly three days before JFK's assassination. Because the national attention was diverted to the horrifying news from Dallas, the anniversary went almost unnoticed. On a visit to Gettysburg some years ago, I was strolling through the National Cemetery and noticed a military headstone for a man who died June 6, 1944. That in turn triggered a recollection of one of JFK's comments: "The cost of freedom is high, but Americans have always paid it." It's one of the sad ironies of history that his death, coming at the time it did,  underscored that remark with particular force.

A hundred years from now, what will our descendants say about our stance toward the freedoms which Lincoln so eloquently celebrated 150 years ago?

A nation of kludges?

Posted on September 25, 2013 at 3:31 PM Comments comments (2)
There's an odd sort of symmetry in my classes this week. In my Western Civilization class, I'm discussing with my students how Rome developed the first republican form of government. In my American History class, the discussion centers around the move to replace the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution.

Which makes it particularly fascinating that I just came across an article online titled "Kludgeocracy in America." You can check it out at www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/kludgeocracy-in-america. Briefly, this article is about our charming national habit of settling for a "muddling through" approach to problems rather than enduring the cost of honest debates and decisions about national policies.

It's my personal thesis that we (as a nation) do this because we've gotten so accustomed to the idea that we must find solutions to national problems that can command the requisite amount  of public support while not offending anyone powerful or influential. While we've endured one national trauma (9/11), two seemingly endless wars, and one national financial fiasco in the last decade and a half, we haven't gotten the sort of swift kick in the seat of the pants that may cause us to change our thinking.

While it's possible to nitpick some of the author's points, I have the uncomfortable feeling that this article comes painfully close to the truth. Why do we subject ourselves to such prolonged ineffectuality in our national business? If I could answer that question, perhaps I could also explain why intelligent people ignore the condition of their teeth until they require a root canal. Right now I'm baffled.

A nation by any other name

Posted on June 21, 2013 at 11:40 AM Comments comments (0)
Today is the birthday of the U.S. Constitution. I know we celebrate Constitution Day on September 17, but to use a human analogy, that was the date of conception. Our basic law was actually born on this date in 1788 when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify it.

When I was in the eighth grade, my American History class did a play on the Constitutional Convention. All the players wrote their own speeches and most were original, but one quoted Benjamin Franklin when asked what the Convention had given the new nation: "A republic, if you can keep it." This is one of those comments that still occasions angry debates today as to whether the U.S. is a republic or a democracy. If someone asked me, "Is the U.S. a republic or a democracy?" I would answer, "No, it's both." There are those who assert that it must be one or the other, since "democracy" is of Greek derivation, whereas "republic" is Latin. Such oversimplifications are a good example of the maxim, "Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer."

I don't mean to suggest that those who hold to one view or the other are necessarily stupid people. But anyone who thinks we can overlay our own political preoccupations on the past needs to go back and take some remedial history courses. When Franklin made his celebrated comment, he most likely had one of three past examples in mind: the Roman Republic, which ended in Caesarism; the Dutch Republic, which was worn down by getting in the quarrels of Habsburg and Bourbon; or the Protectorate under Cromwell, which ended up as a military dictatorship. These are not auspicious examples for those who believe in republican governments.

If we are not a democracy, then the first three words of the Constitution, "We the People," are a lie. Those words assert the proposition, "Power from the people," which is the plain meaning of the Greek words demos and kratos. The fact that in 1787, "we the people" meant in practice "white adult males of property" does not invalidate the assertion that power is the servant of the people, not the master. We are also a republic, because power is exercised through representative leaders who derive their power from the consent of "we the people."

We are unique, whether or not you believe in the doctrine of American exceptionalism. We are unique because our Founding Fathers strove to create something durable, a form of government that would not succumb to the temptations of power. Did they succeed? This is probably a question that cannot be answered in our lifetimes. Formulaic responses as to what our nation is are the refuge of the thoughtless. Whatever our founders left us, it was not intended to be a haven for the ignorant or the gullible.

Places in the heart

Posted on June 15, 2013 at 2:55 PM Comments comments (164)
In Europe, they have war cemeteries. Perhaps this is because the major European nations got into the habit of fighting wars before they coalesced as nations. Ironically, the building of Lenin's Tomb in the 1920s was one of the first "national" cemeteries (as contrasted to war cemeteries or royal crypts) created to enshrine a particular concept of nationhood. While no one shares Lenin's eminence, during the Soviet years burial at the Kremlin wall was the equivalent of interment in Westminster Abbey or the Yasukuni Shrine. It's now lost that status, at least for a time. Boris Yeltsin is buried in Novedevichiy Cemetery, several miles from the Kremlin, and Mikhail Gorbachev will be buried there next to his wife when he passes on.

On June 15, 1864, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton signed an order to establish what is today Arlington National Cemetery. For a nation which sometimes seems not to have much consciousness of its own past, this was a real step forward. I confess that Arlington is one of my favorite places to visit in Washington. I have friends buried there; when I pay them a visit, I always run across the tomb of someone eminent. While Arlington is not the oldest of our national cemeteries (we in South Carolina can brag that the one in  Beaufort is older), it serves as a repository of national memory. Tourists flock to the Kennedy grave sites, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, and the Iwo Jima Memorial. Each of these is a commemoration of something significant from our nation's past.

One expects major events to happen in Arlington. Five years ago, we were in Washington for Memorial Day. My wife and I were exploring some previously unvisited parts of the grounds, as were numerous. When from the loudspeakers issued the strains of "Hail to the Chief," everyone stopped, even those nowhere near where the President was about to perform the traditional wreath-laying ceremony. If George Washington or Robert E. Lee had ridden up at that moment, we'd have been astonished, but not entirely surprised.

This is the time of year that commemorates establishment of the U.S. Army. On this date, George Washington was called to command of the newly formed Continental Army during the Revolution. As the nation's senior service, the Army presence is overpowering on this ground. Each service has its ceremonial units, its cherished commemorations. At Arlington, the line between war cemeteries and national cemeteries vanishes, all under the watchful eyes of "First to fight for the right." Happy Birthday, U.S. Army.

Presidential pivot

Posted on June 10, 2013 at 2:49 PM Comments comments (229)
John F. Kennedy's Presidential reputation has ridden a roller-coaster in the half-century since his assassination. However, it seems there is always a patina of romance about the Camelot years that refuses to fade, no matter how many revelations about the backstory of JFK's administration come into the open.

As a scholar of American history, my personal take is that JFK was much more sizzle than steak for most of the brief years he was our leader. However, this month commemorates a pivot that, had gunshots in Dallas not interrupted it, might have done much to secure his reputation. Fifty years ago today, he signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The purpose of this law was to eliminate gender-based wage differentials. Of course, it's fallen far short of that goal. What is important is that, prior to that moment, there was no national goal about gender equity in pay scales. Recognizing that such a goal was needed is an accomplishment, albeit one of "let us begin" rather than "let us finish this job."

We can legitimately say that JFK's forty-eight hours on June 10 and 11, 1963 were among the most important in terms of Presidential boldness of the twentieth century. Also on this day fifty years ago, he made a commencement address at American University at which he declared to Premier Krushchev that the U.S. was ready to begin systematic negotiations toward corralling the destructive potential of nuclear weapons. This address led to negotiations which, two months later, culminated in the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty, ratified shortly before his death. The Cuban Missile Crisis had scared both sides enough to induce them to step back from the nuclear brink.

The following day was the celebrated confrontation-that-wasn't at the "schoolhouse door" in Tuscaloosa. Governor Wallace, after fulfilling his vow to block integration of the University of Alabama, likewise stepped back from the brink. The Kennedy Administration had prepared for an Ole Miss-style face-off. When it proved not to be necessary, JFK had Theodore Sorensen and his speechwriting staff change a scheduled Presidential address. On the evening of June 11, he announced that he was sending up to Congress what would, a year later, emerge as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Justice demands that we remember that progress didn't come easily in those days. Only a few hours after JFK's civil rights address, Medgar Evers was shot from ambush in Jackson. Eventually - too many years later - his killer was brought to justice and sent to prison for the rest of his days. The cycle of political violence that numbered Jackson, Dallas, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Laurel, MD among its notable locales was to shake our country in a way that few comparable stretches of years have done. At times of great political strife (as we are now enjoying), it's worth remembering that there have been worse times in our lives.

Would you believe in a love at first sight?

Posted on June 1, 2013 at 4:10 PM Comments comments (169)
Last night, my wife and I watched a rock-'n-roll retrospective on PBS. It's obviously not contemporary, since the late Davey Jones was emcee. As we saw one Sixties group after another - The Vogues, Percy Sledge, Roger McGuinn - parade across the stage, it was just a good time being had by all. A jarring moment came when Jefferson Starship appeared, doing "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit" (the latter one of my all-time faves). The vocalist had Grace Slick's voice, but the face didn't match. Either Grace has had multiple facelifts or they found a younger woman who can reproduce her sound with absolute fidelity.

The sense of cultural dislocation got even worse when I picked up today's newspaper and read: "In 1967, the Beatles album 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' was released." I took a very deep breath. On June 1, 1967, I was a high school graduate of all of two days' duration. There were no album-oriented rock stations on my radio dial then and I heard very little of this seminal work until I got to college in late summer. At that point, I realized that the Fab Four weren't the Fab Four any longer; they were prophets of the widening gap between generations then fermenting in the Western world.

It was impossible to escape that sound at the University of Florida in late 1967. Every guy in my dorm section except me had a copy of the album, or so it seemed. During late night sessions of pizza and (bootleg) beer, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "A Day in the Life" ruled the airwaves. The Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy hadn't yet occurred, yet the skeins of light and dark that alternated on both sides of "Sergeant Pepper" seemed to foretell a world that would be much different that what it seemed to be.

Which brings me back to my main point, the one about cultural dislocation. Anyone who tries to recapture the sensations of half a century ago and doesn't experience some dislocation isn't paying attention. There will never be a Beatles reunion, since John and George have moved on to other realms. All the same, there aren't many artists who can stake a legitimate claim to have altered peoples' consciousness. It's unfair to blame survivors for surviving, but they must endure the endless drudgery of trying to live up to what they were as young men (and women). I'd find that kind of legacy a major burden.

The devastation of a small town

Posted on April 22, 2013 at 3:21 PM Comments comments (0)
I'm sorry to be so downcast on Earth Day. This above all ought to be a day for celebrating the beauty of the world in which we live, and for renewing our resolution to protect it. Instead, my mind is reeling from the news that the West Fertilizer Company was apparently storing more than 250 times the quantity of ammonium nitrate as divulged to the public. It's apparent the devastation that struck there last week was in some key respects foreordained. What is equally staggering is the word that there are over 1,000 such fertilizer storage facilities in Texas.

In my years in industry, I sometimes participated in process hazards analyses. As we did these, they were extended "what-if" exercises intended to surface all likely hazards from the operation of particular chemical processes. Once identified, an engineer was assigned responsibility for developing controls and countermeasures to push the hazards beyond the horizon of plausibility. News reports indicated that the comparable analysis for West Fertilizer, done in 2011, was cursory, a paperwork exercise more than anything else. At least 14 people have paid with their lives for this corner-cutting.

While Texas is renowned for not putting barriers in the way of most business operations, this seems to be a situation where a documented analysis was done with crossed fingers. However much this approach symbolizes what's sometimes called "commonsense small town values," it's incredible that anyone with any sense of responsibility could confuse this with anything resembling common sense. Letting this nonsense go unrebuked has resulted in death and destruction. Is anyone in authority in Texas paying attention?

Patriots Day

Posted on April 18, 2013 at 4:54 PM Comments comments (4)
"On the eighteenth of April, in seventy-five." The first Patriots Day marked the time when a group of upstart colonists took an irrevocable step toward making a new nation. On this day, we look at Monday's carnage in Boston and wonder whether something fundamental has broken in our land. From henceforth, admiration for the grit and tenacity it takes to run the 26.2 miles of the Boston Marathon will be jostled by hateful images - two puffs of smoke, a runner falling to the ground, police and rescue workers scrambling to render assistance not knowing if or when another blast would occur.

Perhaps this is a week singled out for disaster. Last night, another blast rocked a small town deep in the heart of Texas. Initial reports implicate anhydrous ammonia at a fertilizer plant as the culprit, but we don't know for certain. At this hour, there are even fears that the dead will include volunteer firefighters who were evacuating nursing home residents from a fire at the plant at the time of the explosion.

Many studies have shown that we humans are poor at assessing the relative risks from different activities. In an earlier phase of my career, I instructed trainees in the prevention of flammable mixes in a gasworks, reminding them of the steps required to minimize known job hazards. Objectively, the risks from such industrial hazards are greater, yet we seem to fear the nameless malevolence of accidents less than we do the intentional act of targeting innocent bystanders. Industrial hygienists continue to develop new protective measures against quantifiable hazards. We have very little understanding of how to reach into the depths of human hearts and rip out the embedded malice that considers the murder of an eight year old boy an acceptable price for making a statement.

While we offer prayers and condolences to the victims of both Boston and West, we need to remember that we need to look at ourselves as well. A Russian proverb quoted by Solzhenitsyn states, "You shouldn't have looked in the village [for trouble], but in yourself." Life has enough sorrows without allowing ourselves to be the agents - either knowingly or not - of compounding the sorrows of others.

Revolutionary life cycles

Posted on April 3, 2013 at 2:45 PM Comments comments (186)
On this day in 1860, the Pony Express began its 18-month career of carrying mail from St. Joseph, MO to Sacramento, MO. Even as the first riders spurred their mounts to a gallop, this new wrinkle in fast communications was doomed. What the Native Americans would call the "singing wire," the telegraph, would shortly deliver information across vast distances with the speed of racing electrons. Within a decade after the Civil War, the transatlantic cable would make possible the development of the first international capital markets. The telegraph would also make possible the growth of coordinated rail networks and standard time zones.

On this day in 1973, the precursor of the cell phone was demonstrated in Manhattan, with a call from a Motorola Executive to a scientist at Bell Labs. Perhaps some of us yearn for the day when one could escape ringing telephones by taking a walk. It's no longer possible. I'm not an early adopter of new technologies; my wife and I only started sending text messages to each other when we got our iPhones three years ago. The gee-whiz factor of mobile communications has long since worn off. Another potential question now confronts us: Can there be any such thing as a "communications revolution" in the age of downloadable apps, when it seems each person can have his or her own preferred method of communicating with the rest of the world?

Herr Gutenberg's printing press was king of the mass communications world from the 15th century until around 1920, when radio became commercialized. Television, the photocopier, the telephone, the desktop computer, and the tablet have all come along since 1860, but the rate of change is accelerating. I heard on the radio today that even Facebook is being supplanted in the minds of many (mostly younger) users by newer media. One bewildered Facebook investor wondered out loud why anyone would invest in an enterprise whose life cycle was little longer than that of a butterfly. It's a fair question. What other things might be gained or lost if each person has his or her own personal channel of communication? I certainly don't have an answer.

Who controls whom?

Posted on March 28, 2013 at 5:38 PM Comments comments (122)
The search warrants which the police in Newtown, CT executed after the Sandy Hook shootings have now been made public. They show that the Lanza home was equipped to rival a National Guard armory. As if possession of an arsenal wasn't enough, apparently Adam Lanza left something behind when he went on his shooting rampage - a check from his mother noting that it was for the purchase of yet another weapon.

How much is enough? This question confronts many of us at some point in our lives. "How much" may pertain to weapons, money, food, sex, or anything else that may become the focus of an obsession. It's unsettling to face this question, which may be why many people fail or refuse to confront the pull that "things" have over them.

This is not the prelude to a screed against weapons, money, food, or sex. Like most other boys growing up in the small town South, I learned to shoot at an early age. My grandfather taught me how to use the shotgun which he left me at his death. I spent time on rifle ranges at Boy Scout camp and in ROTC. Along with the instruction in techniques of weaponry, I learned to respect things that had the power of a firearm.

Likewise, I learned that the pursuit of money is more or less unavoidable. I've had the good fortune to accumulate enough wealth to leave me with a sense that retirement won't require eating dog food. I've bought lottery tickets, but usually with the sneaking suspicion that winning a Powerball jackpot might be more money than I should ever have. I don't envy those with mind-boggling wealth. Donald Trump is far richer than I will ever be, but his conduct seems to shout, "Fool on the loose!" I don't think I'm a fool now and hope I never will be.

All of which leads me to a trite though just observation: It's better to control what you have than to let what you have control you. I have much to be thankful for in my life, not the least of which is that I don't think I've ever had more success than I could handle. I hope I can still say that at the end of my life.