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.The Eternal American Battle - Humans V Money

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Friday, September 04, 2009

POLITICAL SPEAK


I wonder how many of you know, dear readers, that the word “Gobbledgook”, being a nonsensical word or phrase designed to imply importance but in fact meaning nothing, has an actual birthday? The word was born on Sunday, May 21st, 1944, in the pages of “The New York Times Magazine”. And it is just one of the many American words born out of American politics.In 1812 the Massachusetts’s legislature contrived, with the help of Governor Elbridge Gerry (pronounced "Jerry"), to redraw the lines for the Essex County Congressional District, to insure who won the elections there. According to legend it was famed painter Gilbert Stuart who first examined the bends and curves of the new district and observed that, to him at least, a map if it resembled a salamander. But whoever said it first, it was Benjamin Russell, editor of the Boston Sentinel, who renamed the proposed district a Gerrymander, after the Governor. That name now applies, as a verb, to the redrawing of congressional district boundaries (Gerrymandering) to insure the election of one particular candidate or party.Almost as old is the word “Bunko”, meaning a fraud or a fraudulent spiel used by salesmen of bad or fake products. Police departments around the nation still have squads of officers assigned to uncovering fraud and cheating scams, named “Bunko Squads”. Some linguists say this word originated with a Mexican card game, a version of three-card monty, but that is just so much "bunk". Thirty years before the invention of the Mexican card game the word was used to describe a speech by Felix Walker, a congressman from North Carolina. Walker had been born in 1753 in the mountains of western Virginia. He worked as a store clerk in Charleston, South Carolina, and tried homesteading with Daniel Boone in Boonsboro, Kentucky. He fought in the American Revolution, and served in the North Carolina House of Commons, the state legislature. In 1816 he was appointed to Congress, to represent the Blue Ridge ‘hollars’ and the French River valley of Buncombe Country. The county was named after American Revolutionary War hero Colonel Edward Buncombe, who had been wounded and captured at the battle of Germantown, in 1777. Recovering from his wounds in occupied Philadelphia in May, Colonel Buncombe was sleepwalking, fell and bled to death when his wounds reopened. The new county named in his honor was so large it was locally referred to as “The State of Buncombe.” Facing contentious re-election in 1818 and again in 1820, Felix Walker quickly learned the value of a well publicized and well received speech. And on February 25, 1820, the House of Representatives debated the crucial issue of the “Missouri Compromise”, deciding wether or not to take the first step that would lead to the Civil War. In the midst of that debate Congressman Walker arose and began to pontificate about the wonders of Buncombe County. The leadership were ready to put the matter of the Compromise to a vote, and after listening to Walker’s rambling speech for several minutes, they urged Walker to stop wasting the congresses’ time and sit down. But Walker explained that his speech was not intended for the benefit of the congress, but for the "simple folk of Buncombe County back home". And then Walker returned to his endless platitudes. Almost overnight Walker’s speech was transformed from being about Buncombe to being “pure Buncombe” itself. And, with a little modification in spelling, it changed from "Buncombe", to "bunkum", and then to "bunk", as in a useless, pompus and empty speech, or "bunko" a false promise intended to further a fraud. Gobbledygook has a much simpler history than bunko, and more recent. It was the purposeful invention of the one term Mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and later Congressman, the Honorable Fontaine Muaury Maverick. The mayor served only one term because a communist had rented a meeting room in the cities' Civic Auditorium. By law, Mayor Maverick could not refuse to rent the room to anyone. But because he failed to "lock out" the commie his opponents were able to rabble rouse a riot, complete with tear gas shells being lobbed about in front of the auditorium. This typical "Texas-Hysteria”, was in response to Maury’s defense of "Freedom of Speech", and almost got him lynched. And it allowed his opponents to brand Maury himself as a communist, which led to his defeat for re-election as Mayor. But that is beside the point.Maury Maverick later won election to Congress, where, during WWII, his honesty, intellect and energy convinced others to make him chairman of the "Small War Plants Committee", overseeing and coordinating the work of thousands of small factories contributing to the American war effort, seeking to avoid duplication of effort, shortages of raw materials and general waste. Being a man interested in results Maury quickly grew frustrated with the growing complexity of official language which prolonged the already almost endless committee meetings he had to attend. In his article for the New York Times magazine, Maury defined his new word as a type of talk which is long, vague, pompous, and uses mostly Latinised words "…when concrete nouns are replaced by abstractions and simple terms by pseudo-technical jargon…" all of which made him think of the mating call of the wild turkey’s back home, as in "gobble, gobble, gobble, gook". In a later memorandum Maury ordered, in pure Texas style, "Anyone using the words “activation” or “implementation” will be shot”. Of course no one was executed. But perhaps because no one was, the continued human attraction to verbosity has since produced nonsense such as "Pentagonese", "Journalese", "circumlocution", and other such gobbledygook words used to describe Maury’s gobbledegook. In an interesting (I think) side note, gobbledegook was the Maverick family’s second addition to the American lexicon. The first was their family name. There was a Maverick aboard the Mayflower. And a 17-year old apprentice, Samuel Maverick, had been struck down by 'lobster backs' at the Boston Massacre. But the most famous Maverick of all was another Samuel, this one born in Pendleton, South Carolina, in 1803. This Maverick, Samuel Augustus, graduated from Yale in 1825 and was admitted to the bar in 1829. A year later, he ran for the South Carolina Legislature, but his anti-secession opinions contributed to his defeat. In 1835 Samuel Maverick moved to Texas. He was one of two men from the Alamo elected to the Texas Independence Convention. And his career in politics thus saved him from being butchered by Mexican troops under General Santa Ana. Because of his political obligations he also missed the victory at San Jacinto. He was elected Mayor and then Treasurer of the city of San Antonio, and later served in the seventh and eighth Texas Congresses. He also dabbled in East Texas land speculation, and sometime in 1843 or 1844, as payment for a bad debt, Samuel Augustus took possession of a ranch around Matagorda Bay, Texas. The only problem was that Maverick had no experience in ranching and no interest in learning. When he saw that every other rancher had branded their cattle, Augustus decided there was no need for him to bother with the expense of branding his. In 1847, when Samuel moved back to San Antonio, he left his cattle under the care of his ranch hands, who saw no reason to pay more attention to their jobs than their absentee boss. They let the animals wander the open range. Cowboys who found unbranded cattle thus identified them all as the property of "Mr. Maverick", and mavericks thus became any unbranded cow or horse. Samuel Augustus Maverick favored Texas being annexated by the U.S., and after it was, he fought its secession from the Union in 1861 until he realized there was no stopping it. After the Civil War he opposed Reconstruction. When he died in 1870 he left holdings of over 300,000 acres and a reputation for independence - not being branded by any special interests. His son, Samuel Maverick jr., fought with distinction in the Civil War (for the south) and was promoted to second lieutenant. After the civil war Maverick jr. helped preserve the Alamo, donated "Maverick Park" to San Antonio, and lived to swear in his own son, inventor of the term gobbledegook, as Mayor of San Antonio. Maverick junior died in 1936 at the age of 98. And so he never had to deal with the gobbledygook his son did.
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Thursday, September 03, 2009

BIRTH OF THE BOYCOTT

I can describe the exact moment of conception. On the evening of September 22nd, 1880 Father John O’Malley was sharing a meal with American journalist James Redpath, when the priest noticed that the American was not eating. Redpath explained, “I am bothered about a word. When a people ostracize a land grabber; (but) ostracism won't do’…Father John…tapped his big forehead, and said, 'How would it do to call it "to boycott him”?'. Mr. Redpath wrote, “He was the first man who uttered the word, and I was the first who wrote it.” (Talks About Ireland, 1881) Freed from its incubator in the central highlands of Mexico, Phytophthora infestans, the Potato Blight, arrived in Ireland in the 1830’s. But it was in the decade after 1845 when it exploded and consumed the entire potato crop. In those ten years 20% of the eight million people of Ireland starved to death and 20% emigrated. And yet Ireland did not explode until a generation after “The Starving Time”. And the precipitant cause of that eventual explosion was a minister’s son who became for a time the most hated man in Ireland. His name was Charles Cunningham Boycott. And he bloody well deserved it.In 1878 the blight came back, and every year following. The British government struggled to respond with church based relief, but politics now added to the human misery. The Corn Laws which placed a duty on imports prevented cheap American wheat from feeding the hungry, and insured that the bounty of Ireland was used to feed England. By 1880, of the four million souls still living on the emerald isle, fewer than 2,000 owned 70% of the land. Many of the largest, wealthiest landowners were absentee landlords, who hired local farmers to manage their estates. “Captain" Boycott was one of these. The three million tenant farmers of Ireland owned nothing and over the previous two years the rents on their homes had gone up by 30%. Those who could not pay were evicted. Those who were evicted usually died. To argue it was not intended as “genocide” misses the point. Ireland was teetering on the edge of revolution. On Tuesday, July 3rd, 1880, three men emptied their revolvers into the head and face of twenty-nine year old David Feerick, an agent for the Browne estate outside of the village of Ballinrobe, County Mayo. No one was ever convicted of the murder. In early September, outside of the same village, “Captain” Charles Boycott, who owned 4,000 acres himself, called on the tenants to harvest the oat crop of Lord Erne, whose larger property he managed. “Captain” Boycott would be described by the New York Times (in 1881) as 49 years old; a red faced fellow, five feet eight inches tall, the son of a Protestant minister who had served in the British Army. He earned his title of Captain for his daring attitude in sport. The day he called them back to work Boycott also
informed the tenants that their wages were being cut by almost half. The tenants simply refused to work. The Boycott family and servants struggled for half a day to cut and harvest the oats, before admitting defeat. Mrs. Boycott then appealed to the tenants personally, and they responded to her by bringing in the oat crop before the winter rains ruined it. On September 19th, Charles Stuart Parnell, an Irish politician, addressed a mass meeting in the town of Ennis, calling on people to shun any who took over the property of an evicted tenant. “When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must show him on the roadside when you meet him, you must show him in the streets of the town, you must show him at the shop counter, you must show him in the fair and the marketplace, and even in the place of worship, by leaving him severely alone — putting him into a kind of moral Coventry — isolating him from his kind like the leper of old.”On September, 22nd, a local process server, accompanied by police, issued eviction notices to eleven of the tenants of “Captain" Boycott. They were not surprised. One told a local newspaper, “He treated his cattle better than he did us.” The agent would have issued more eviction notices, but a crowd of women began to throw mud and manure and the agent had to retreat into the Boycott home. The next morning, September 23rd, a large crowd from Ballinrobe marched to the Boycott home and urged the servants to leave. By evening the couple and a young niece living with them, were alone in the house.A letter written by “Captain” Boycott was published in the London Times. It made no mention of the raising of rents, only of the refusal to pay. It made no mention of the cutting of salary, only of the refusal to work. It did detail in full the travails of Captain Boycott and his family. His mail was not delivered. He was followed and mocked whenever he left his farm. “The shopkeepers have been warned to stop all supplies to my house. I can get no workmen to do anything, and my ruin is openly avowed…” Harpers Weekly Illustrated News for December 18, 1880, recorded what happened next. “A newspaper correspondent first started the idea of sending assistance to Captain Boycott…one person alone promised to get together 30,000 volunteers. Mr Forester, Chief Secretary for Ireland, at once vetoed the project of an armed invasion…It was accordingly decided to pick out some fifty or sixty from the great number of Orange (Protestants) from northern Ireland who were anxious to volunteer. Under military protection (of 1,000 troops) these men harvested Captain Boycott’s crops… The cost of this singular expedition was about ten thousand pounds…” It took two weeks under military guard for the inexperienced Ulster men to bring in the crop of turnips, wheat and potatoes, valued by Boycott as worth about three hundred and fifty pounds. Mr. Parnell estimated that meant the harvest had cost the English government “one shilling for every turnip.” Boycott left Ireland with his family on December 1, 1880, traveling in the back of a miltary ambulance and escorted by soldiers. He never returned. Some one described his exile as the “death of feudalism in Europe.
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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

DRAMA QUEENS

I think I may have stumbled upon an historical example of why people would bring guns to a public meeting. This story really starts with the sudden death of the Governor of the Colony of Virginia, Samuel Mathews, Jr, in January of 1660. He had been born in America, and there were high hopes he would be a brave new leader of a brave new world. Instead, on March 13, 1660 the Burgesses, members of the Virginia colonial assembly, decided to take a step back to the future by appointing “the honorable Sir William Berkeley” as their Governor, again.Eight years before “Will” as his friends called him, had been a popular Governor. Now, at the age of 55, Berkeley again accepted the responsibility of leading the 35,000 English settlers in the “Old Dominion”. Will was a playwrite and a fighter, a Cyrano, who Mary Newton Standard has described as, “Every inch a gallant soldier, every inch a gentleman, yet haughty, unsympathetic and unlovable; narrow in mind and in heart.” (The Story of Bacon's Rebellion, Neale – 1907 ©, Jeffrey C. Weaver, 2000) She might have added he was also a drama queen. His supporters were the FFV, the First Families of Virginia, including the bloodlines of Lee, Spencer, Washington, Randolph, Fitzhugh, Harrison, Custis, and others. And in 1674, there landed in the midst of this fraternity Will’s nephew, the impatient and ambitious 24 year old, Nathaniel Bacon. Will welcomed his nephew warmly, giving him property and a trading concession with the Indians. Being a politician, Will also took the opportunity to shore up his own political support by naming his nephew to the Colonial Council, thus assuming he could count on the support of his family. However Will did not appoint his nephew as a commander of the local militia, and it was the appointment he did not receive which Nathaniel took note of. But why had this young man traveled to America? Well, Nathaniel had recently married and his new in-laws had quickly realized he was a pretentious pompous fraud. They promptly disinherited their daughter. And that was why Nathaniel had come to America. He needed cash. But Nathaniel had picked a bad time to make a new start. Beginning in 1670 Virginia had suffered from a string of hailstorms, floods, and droughts. Years of bad harvests were followed by the ‘bitter winter’ of 1672-73 when half the colonies’ livestock starved to death. By the spring 1676 wheat and corn or so scarce that Will had to ban their exportation even to neighboring colonies. In cash-poor Virginia colony, where debts and salaries were often paid in tobacco and crop futures, this created a credit crunch which hit the newer settlers, like young Nathaniel Bacon, much harder than their bankers, who were usually members of the FFV, and close friends of William Berkeley. The newer settlers were known as ‘freeholders’, and these men, such as William Drummond, wanted more cash in the colony, and they didn’t like paying taxes, and they wanted a war against the Indians, which, of course, would have required more taxes. Like his inlaws before them, the freeholders took quick measure of Nathaniel Bacon. But these men were not looking for family. They figured the boy didn’t know enough about Virginia (or Indians) to argue with them if they made him a general. So they did, without the Governor’s approval. Nathaniel immediately marched his little army off to butcher some local Indians. As the freeholders intended, that put the Governor in a bind, because the dead Indians had signed a peace treaty. It looked like the entire frontier would erupt in an Indian war. Will demanded an apology from his nephew, who proudly refused. Then in June of 1676 Nathaniel arrived in Jamestown for the opening of the House of Burgesses and Will took the opportunity to arrest the little snot. Nathaniel was dragged in front of the council and required to apologize. Then Will magnanimously pardoned him. It was great theatre, but if the Governor thought he was directing this little melodrama he was mistaken. He was now facing an actor just as capable of historanics as himself. Overnight, Nathaniel slipped out of town and returned the next morning in front of an ad hoc audience, er, army, of 300 freeholder militiamen. They marched into town, with flags flying and drums pounding. The members of the house hung out the windows of their parliment building, mesmerized by the preformance. Never one to let an audience go to waste, Will came stomping out of the hall and ripped open his shirt. Baring his chest, or at least his ruffles, Will declared to the spectators, “Here I am! Shoot me before God! (It’s a) fair mark, a fair mark! Shoot!” Nathaniel calmly said no, thank you. Instead he wanted the Governor to name him overall commander of the entire Indian war. Since the Governor’s didn’t want any Indian war, he exited at once, stage right. Nathaniel, with no actor to play against, went over the top. He started screaming. He ordered his men to surround the meeting house, and announced he would kill everyone inside if he were not given total command at once. For a few minutes it looked as if there would be a wholesale slaughter just for the sake of a theatrical effect. But a touch of reality was supplied by the supporting players. Reason eventually prevailed. Will was persuaded to sign his nephew’s commission.The lesson here I would say is that people who bring matchlock black powder muskets to public meetings have a “flare” for the dramatic. They are looking to attract an audience, i.e. , in an appropriately dramatic fashion, twenty-five year old Nathaniel Bacon had just overthrown the royal governor of Virginia. But what about an Act Two? On July 30, 1676 the boy General published a “Declaration of the People”. “If virtue be sin, if piety be guilt, all the principles of morality, goodness, and justice be perverted.” It might be poetry but Nathaniel was now addressing a skeptical audience. The declaration went on to demand the arrest of Will and 19 other FFVers as “traitors to the people”. Nathaniel then announced a general war on the Indians and demanded an oath of allegiance from all government officials. It was signed, Nathanial Bacon, General, “By the Consent of ye People”, and was made without any of ye people present. The paperwork thus complete, Nathaniel marched off with 1,000 men to attack the nearest Indians. About now it dawned on the more thoughtful freeholders that they had hitched their fortunes to a rather temperamental artist. But Drummond for one would listen to no such warnings. “I am in over (my)shoes”? I will be over (my) boots!” He soon was in over his neck. The governor gathered his own supporters at Jamestown, and counter-proclaimed his nephew a traitor. Nathaniel marched his army back to Jamestown, and on September 19, 1676 Nathaniel burned the capital of Virginia to the ground. It was a sorry end for the “Old cradle of an infant world, In which a nestling empire lay” (Ode to Jamestown, James Kikke Paclding). But it was also the defining moment of Nathaniel Bacon’s performance. The very set he was preforming upon, the edifice painfully constructed over a century of painful effort, at the cost of thousands of lives, had been put to the torch in one adolescent thespian outburst. There was no third act. Forty days later the great actor was dead.Nathaniel Bacon died of the “bloody flux”, which is the old name for dysentery, on October 25th, 1676. With him died “Bacon’s Rebellion", leaving Will free to hunt down the freeholders. When William Drummond was brought before him, the governor greeted him by saying, “I am more glad to see you than any man in Virginia. Mr. Drummond, you shall be hanged in half an hour.” And he was. Twenty-four men in all were executed for their roles in the uprising. Charles II back in London would later observe, “That old fool (Berekely) has put to death more people in that naked country than I did here for the murder of my father.” A year later the curtain dropped on William Berekeky. He died in England, having been recalled to explain himself. Historian Susan McCulley has noted, “Bacon's Rebellion does seem at first glance to be the beginnings of America's quest for Independence. But closer examination of the facts reveals what it really was: a power struggle between two very strong personalities.” Strong personalities? I would call them two of the biggest hams in American history.
http://colonial-america.suite101.com/article.cfm/bacons_rebellion_1676#ixzz0P10jXiYb

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