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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

THE AMAZING MR. RANDOLPH

I agree with William Plummer’s 1803 assessment of John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia; “I admire his ingenuity and address, but I dislike his politics.” The man  represents the tap root of two great branches in American conservative politics, patrician conservatives and gay conservatives; because if John Randolph wasn’t gay, then neither was Roy Cohen.
Some biographies of Randolph insist that he suffered from a condition called “Klinefelter’s syndrome”, but that condition occurs in only 1 out of every 500 males, or 0.02% of the general population, while homosexuality is a genetic variation that occurs in (conservatively speaking) about 5 – 6% of the population, making it much more likely that Randolph was gay. And in any case, both conditions are genetic variations, having nothing to do with sin, intelligence, choice or morality. So, from a purely practical standpoint, it is just simpler to concede that Randolph was gay and move on.
Randolph was a slave-owning elegantly dressed ‘fashionista’, described by one author as “The most notorious American political curmudgeon of his time”. That may be putting it kindly. John Randolph specialized in what the Romans called the “Argumentum Ad Hominem” or the ‘argument against the man’. As a verbal tool it allows the speaker to change the subject, and tar a political position with the alleged sins of one of its advocates, thus forcing advocates to defend themselves, not what they stand for. And if that method of attack sounds familiar, it is confirmation of the connection between Randolph’s ideological bloodline and its present practitioners, like Karl Rove.
John Quincy Adams borrowed from Ovid to describe John Randolph; “His face is ashen, gaunt his whole body, His breath is green with gall; His tongue drips poison.” It is a fair description of the “…abusive eloquence which he possessed in such abundance” (ibid). Either description could have been used for Mr. Rove by his opponents.
It is a shame that both of those distinguished blood lines are now being excised from the Republican Party in preference to the “Sara Palin” template. The idea that a dumb, uneducated heterosexual conservative is preferable to a smart homosexual conservative is akin to abandoning a talking dog because you don’t like the way he pronounces “Béarnaise sauce”. Sister “Sara” and her supporters remind me of the words of British Prime Minster Lloyd George who said of one opponent; “He has a retail mind in a wholesale business.” Or, to paraphrase John Selden, ignorance of the law may be no excuse, but ignorance in general is inexcusable.
Randolph’s first biographer, Lemuel Sawyer, described him this way; “As an orator he was more splendid than solid; as a politician he (lacked) the profound views of a great statesman...he was too intolerant." But John Randolph admitted to enjoying “That most delicious of all privileges – spending other people’s money.”  Its hard to condem a man who admits his own sins so gleefully.
Randolph was elected to congress at 26 years of age in 1799, and served off and on in both houses (as well as in the Virginia State legislature) until his death. He never married, and admitted “I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality." And in describing his chosen career Randolph observed that “If electioneering were allowed in heaven, it would corrupt the angels.”
As if to prove his point, in 1824 Randolph turned his cutting tongue loose in the defining speech of his life, on the floor of the U.S. Senate. It was described by one author as “rambling, sometimes incoherent, funny, insulting and devastating….filled with literary and classical allusions, among other odds and ends, and delivered with a delightful insouciance.”
Randolph attacked the Federalist position on the central issues of the day and said any compromise with Speaker of the House, Henry Clay of Kentucky, or with Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, would be anathema, as “…their friendship is a deadly distinction, their touch pollution”. And as to the very idea of a strong central Federal government, Randolph called it “That spirit which considers the many, as made only for a few, which sees in government nothing but a job, which is never so true to itself as when false to the nation.”
I’ve read that speech at least ten times and each time it makes less sense to me than it did before. At the time, however, it had a great effect on its audience. I guess you had to be there.
Then Randolph got down to the most troublesome part of his attack. He described Henry Clay as “…so brilliant yet so corrupt, like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks.” Amongst southern aristocrats, being called a ‘stinking mackerel’ were fighting words. Henry Clay was willing to overlook the insult until, in 1826, the insult was repeated in print, in the "United States Telegraph" newspaper. Clay could no longer pretend Randolph had not said the words, and after a properly stiff exchange of notes, Clay issued Randolph a challenge to what one witness described as the “…the last high-toned duel I ever saw”.
They met at about 4:30 p.m. on April 8th 1826, just over the Little Falls Bridge from Georgetown, Virginia. Randolph was resplendent in a bright yellow coat. Clay was coldly determined. The night before Thomas Hart Benton had paid Randolph a visit and pleaded with him not to go through with the duel, saying Clay had a young son and wife who would be left destitute if Clay were killed or seriously injured. Randolph seemed unmoved, but he had replied to Benton, “I shall do nothing to disturb the sleep of that child or the repose of the mother.” But I don’t think anybody told Clay he had nothing to worry about.
The men paced off ten steps apart (about 30 feet), and then as the countdown began Randolph’s gun misfired. The gun was reloaded and the countdown began again; “Ready, aim, fire.” Clay’s shot hit the dirt in front of Randolph, whose shot struck a stump behind Clay. The men then reloaded and the insanity began again. This time Clay got off the first shot, sending a ball through the hem of Randolph’s expensive yellow coat. Randolph held his fire, and then dramatically fired his shot into the air.
Then Randolph strode forward with his hand extended. The opponents shook hands in the center of the “field of honor”, and Randolph dryly said, “You owe me a coat, Mr. Clay.”
I don’t think Clay ever paid for the coat, because when John Randolph died in May of 1833, his will instructed that his slaves be transported to Ohio and freed, his body was to buried in Virginia and he was to be planted facing west, so he could keep an eye on Kentucky’s Henry Clay. Now that is going a long way for an insult.
It could be said of John Randolph that he had opposed most if not all of the famous men and great causes of his time, that politically he gave as good as he got, and that he made the most of the talents that God gave him; not a bad legacy. Except, it must also be said that nothing he supported made the nation stronger, nor helped improve the lives of the the people of his state. A politician who chose the carreer of a speed bump cannot, in my opinion, be said to have used his talents for the public good.
Why he did not do so might be explained, at least in part, by a letter he wrote in the winter of 1833,  addressed "To the Honorable Waller Holladay, Esquire, of the county of Spotsylvania, of the State of Virginia, of the United States of America, of the Western Hemisphere,of the Globe." And amazingly, it was delivered. "I am sure you will be surprised and pained to hear that I was honored last night by a visit from no less a personage than His Satanic Majesty. His Majesty assured me that my only hope of much longer continuance of my mortal existence depended upon my subsisting entirely upon the milk of your fine Medley mare, which would restore health to my worn out hody. Under these melancholy circumstances, I have no choice hut to throw myself upon your friendly mercies and I implore you to let me have the mare without delay...that her milk may save the life of your sincere but sullcring friend. Randolph of Roanoke"
Mr. Hollady "of the Globe" read the letter and did not dispatch the mare. Instead he immediatly filed the missave away without answering it, in the hope he said later that "the aberration was but temporary". It was not. Randolf died in May of 1833. And the letter concerning Mr. Randolf's visit from Satan, was used as proof of his insanity, break his final revision to his last will. It was a dramatic exit that,I am sure, Mr. Randolf would have approved of. 
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Sunday, January 17, 2010

HOLDING A CANDLE


I wonder if you realize how dark the world has been for the last 10,000 years? For most of that time you could burn wood for light, but firewood was not a quickly renewable resource. Emperors and Kings prefered to build ships and thrones out of it, rather than incinerate it. Sure, you could burn olive oil in a lamp, but olive oil creates smoke, and it has a limited shelf life, and it is really not very portable. And then some Etruscan genius in the eleventh century B.C. invented a thing you could carry in your pocket and which gave off light slowly over a long period of time. It was such a great invention that it was given the Sanskrit name of “cand” meaning 'to give light'. And whoever that Etruscan Thomas Edison was, I bet he got stinking rich, mostly because the stuff they made candles out of - rancid animal fat - tended to produce a powerful stench when it was heated.

It is stunning to realize how much human effort over the next 3,000 years was devoted to inventing the stink-less candle. The guy who finally did it was a Jew who had escaped Seville just ahead of the Spanish inquisition. Jacob Rodriguez Rivera landed in Newport, Rhode Island in 1748. He arrived there because eight years earlier the English were so desperate for white people willing to settle in America that George II had rescinded the requirement that colonists pledge their loyalty to him "upon the true faith of a Christian." With the removal of those five little words America was endowed with all the brains, blood and brawn the rest of the world didn’t approve of for one reason or another. That is what made us what we are, which is not a Christian nation, but a multi-religious nation, the most consistantly sucessful nation (over the last 200 years) in the world.

Anyway, Jacob went into business with his brother-in-law, Moses Lopez, who was a candle maker. And while wandering the docks of Newport looking for cheap supplies of animal fat Jacob stumbled upon the dockside slaughter of a sperm whale. Now, whale blubber had long been boiled down for the oil it contained, but burning whale fat stank even worse than cow or pig fat. And since Whales were difficult to find, kill and slaughter, blubber was usually mixed with other fats to reduce the stench and stretch the more expensive stuff. But since the blubber was cheap Jacob bought a couple of barrels to see what he could make of it, and while he was at it, he also bought some spermaceti, because nobody knew what to make of that, either.

See, if you poke a hole in a Sperm Whale’s head you will find hundreds of gallons of the stuff. Maybe it helps the whales eco-locate their prey, and maybe it helps them dive so deep. No human is really sure what it does. But it’s white and sticky and it looks like…well, you know what it looks like. That’s why they called them Sperm Whales.

Within a few years Jacob developed the following process; each fall when the whaling fleets returned, the spermaceti was bought from the whalers in 42 gallon barrels. (The ships sailed with the barrels filled with water, and as the crew drank the water, the empty barrels were filled with spermaceti.) The stuff was boiled down, the oil floated to the surface and was drained off. And the residue was allowed to congeal over the winter into a spongy, sticky, stinky mass. Yuck.

Then, when “…the temperature rose” in the spring, the stuff was shoveled into bags and pressed until the “winter –strained oil” was squeezed out. This was considered the creme-de-la-crème of sperm oil, and sold for the highest price. But Jacob was not done yet.

After more processing and squeezing, Jacob was left with a solid black cake of gunk that could be melted and formed into smokeless, stink-less candles, ready for shipment in the spring. When they burned spermaceti candles actually smelled sweet and produced almost no smoke. And the light they made was such a pure white light that a “foot-candle”, the amount of light a spermaceti candle produces at a distance of one foot from the flame, remains the standard for measuring light output to this very day.

Jacob’s only problem was that within a couple of years several competitors had either guessed or stolen his process. Okay, mostly stolen. So, in 1761 the United Company of Spermaceti Chandlers decided to form a cartel. Jacob Rivera teamed up with Obediah Brown & Company, primarily a Quaker family business based in Providence, and thus was born "Quaker Oil". Eventually they united with whalers along the east coast down to Philadelphia, and called themselves 'The Spermaceti Trust’.

The rules of The Trust set a top price of six pounds Sterling that its members would pay for a pound of spermaceti, and set the minimum price for one hundred candles its members would sell at one pound and one shilling.

The hunt for the Sperm whales was on. From 1770 until the start of the American Revolution, The Trust produced 45,000 barrels of sperm oil annually, compared to just 8,500 barrels a year of oil from all other types of whales. After the War of 1812 The Trust became unofficially based on the Quaker power center of Nantucket Island, 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, where some 36 chandlers made the precious spermaceti candles. So much money was made that the Brown family endowed a university with the profits.

 By 1846 the tiny harbor in Natucket supported more than 700 whaling ships and more than 70,000 jobs, full and part time. Then, just after 11:00 p.m. on the windy night of July 13 of 1846, a faulty stovepipe led to a fire which, by morning, had destroyed 250 buildings, seven chandler factories, tens of thousands of barrels of spermacti oil stored in warehouses and on wharves, (three of the town’s four wharves burned completely), stores and warehouses, blacksmiths’, rope-makers’ and Sail-makers’ workshops and leaving 800 people homeless.

The proud town of Nantucket was reduced to begging for “…provisions, clothing, bedding, money…” Help poured in, but the golden age of the Spermaceti Trust was over. Nine years later the Trust was completly broken and the industry had been cut by half. By 1875 the island’s population had been reduced by two-thirds, down to just 3,200 souls.

The reason for the breaking up of The Trust was not just the Nantucket fire, of course. That didn't help. But what really hurt was the discovery of gold in California. A ship owner could make as much in six months carrying miners and mining equipment to California as he did on one three year search for whales in the Artic. At least half the forrest of masts of abandoned ships in San Francisco Bay, left adrift when their crews went hunting for gold, were ex-whalers.

And The Trust was also doomed by the development of drilling for petroleum in Canada and Pennsylvania. Krosene lamps replaced spermaceti lamps and candles because they were cheaper and almost as odorless.

The new baron of oil would be John D. Rockefeller, who called his company “Standard Oil” to sooth buyers used to variations in oil grades produced from different species of whales. But he supplied his product in the same 42 gallon barrels used to supply whale oil. (We still measure oil in terms of those 42 gallon barrels). John D. seemed to be reassuring his customers that nothing had changed in the oil business, except the names of the people who ran The Trust.

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FEAR OF FAILURE


I will tell you a truth about explorers. Eventually they always find what they are searching for. The amazing part is that a lot of them have no idea what kind of quest they are actually on. And in early June of 1925, as intrepid explorer Percy Fawcett strode into the Amazon jungle, followed closely by his 22 year old son and a friend, Percy thought he was seeking the lost city of “Z”. He was wrong, but he still made it half way there. He found the “lost” part.

Colonel Percy Fawcett was “the last of a breed of explorers to venture into blank spots on the map with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose.” His true life adventures in the jungles of South America inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World”, and the cheesy Hollywood movie based on it. He was also, at least in part, the basis for the character of Indiana Jones. And for reasons that beg explanation, at the age of 58, Percy, a trained and accomplished engineer and surveyor, became obsessed with a ten inch tall stone figure of a bearded man.

The figure had been given to Percy by H. Rider Haggard, the author of “King Solomon’s Mines”. Haggard had purchased it in Brazil. “There is a peculiar property in this stone image,” wrote Percy, “felt by all who hold it in their hands. It is as though an electric current were flowing up one’s arm, and so strong is it that some people have been forced to lay it down.” There were, of course, a few things wrong about the statue. The figure was bearded, and a bearded native-American is about a common as a bearded Amazon catfish. Also, the figure was carved out of basalt, and there is no basalt in the Amazl basin. But Percy was determined.

First, he took the figure to the British Museum, where he was politely told, “If it’s not a fake it’s quite beyond our experience.” Now, you might have expected Percy to understand that bit of ‘science-speak’ to mean “it’s a fake”. But Percy was no ordinary engineer. According to Richard Holmes, in his book “Tommy; the British Soldier in the Western Front”, during the winter of 1916 Percy was assigned to direct counter-battery fire along a section of British trenches. “The only counter-battery shots which he would allow were those against targets clearly visible from British lines - or those he had personally detected on his Ouija board.”

I had better let Percy explain what he did next, because you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. “I could think of only one way of learning the secret of the stone image,” wrote Percy, “and that was by means of psychometry.” Yes; he consulted a psychic.

Holding the statue the medium had a ‘vision’. He saw “a large irregularly shaped continent stretching from the north coast of Africa across to South America”, complete with “processions of what looked like priests” dressed like the mysterious bearded figure. Then, the medium said, “…the whole land shakes with a mighty rumbling sound (and) …disappears under the water.” Percy now asserted, “…the connection of Atlantis with parts of what is now Brazil is not to be dismissed contemptuously.”

Now, a skeptic might contemptuously point out that any good con artist would know that Percy had written several articles about the kingdom of Atlantis for ‘The Occult Review’ magazine.  But while spoil a wonderful mystical adventure with facts?

Atlantis was the invention of the Greek philosopher, Plato. He weaved a tale of a great kingdom, where pure reason ruled supreme. This facist utopia was destroyed only by a natural disaster, in, said Plato, a single day and a night. It was romantic, and absurd, and you could forest a planet with the trees turned to pulp for books identifying the location of the real Atlantis. And Percy, examining clues he had collected in ten years of exploring the Amazon, was certain the psych’s “reading” had merely confirmed that a colony of Atlantis was somewhere along the upper Xingu River, in southwestern Brazil And Percy knew exactly where to find it. “The central place I call "Z" -- our main objective -- is in a valley surmounted by lofty mountains. The valley is about ten miles wide, and the city is on an eminence in the middle of it…”

In the early spring of 1925 Percy, his son Jack, and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimell, began their march into the Mato Grosso, Portuguese for “thick woods”. Before entering the unknown Percy sent a last letter to his wife, Nina, assuring her of his confidence. “You need have no fear of failure,” he wrote. He did not say anything about safety.

They crossed the upper Xingu (Shing-goo) River and the Rio Ticantins, and entered the domain of the Kurikuro, the Matipu and Nahhkwa peoples, all Carib speakers, survivors of first contact plagues, and victims of civilization and slavers, and deeply mistrustful of white men. For weeks the explorers fought tropical heat, poisonous snakes, biting insects, and preditors who did not fear humans. When Percy’s party entered the camp of the Kalapalos tribe, the natives noted that both of the younger men were limping and ill, and that the “old man” looked very tired.

The Kalapalos tried to convince Percy to turn back, or at least rest with them for a few days. But so close to his goal, the explorer insisted in pressing on. The villagers followed the men’s campfire smoke receding into the jungle for five evenings, and then…nothing. Young men sent to follow the trail came to the last campsite and reported that the jungle beyond was undisturbed. It seemed as if Percy and his two companions had simply vanished off the face of the earth.

Percy had left strict instructions behind, that if his expedition should fail to reappear, no one was to come looking for them. It was too dangerous. So of course, over the following decades, the jungle was invaded by 13 separate expeditions searching for Percy. More than a hundred men died looking for the man who took practical advice from an Ouija board. Occasionally a compass or other tool would be discovered in a villager’s hut, and linked to Percy Fawcett. But the men were never found. Nina Fawcett was convinced her husband had been captured by an Indian tribe, and claimed to have received telepathic messages from him as late as 1934. But she died a widow, anyway.

Like all such mysteries, there were a thousand solutions offered. Fawcett was killed by the Kalapalos, or another tribe deeper in the woods. The entire party died of injury or illness, or animal attack. They were kidnapped and held for decades in the jungle, eventually becoming chiefs or priests. Or they descended into the earth and spent their days living with a subterranean society. Eventually, none of it mattered.

I am sorely tempted to simply say they were fools following a fool’s errand, seduced by a myth of their own creation, searching for mysticism in a prosaic universe. Eventually everyone who had been fascinated by Percy Fawcett’s story grew old and forgetful and passed into the great unknown themselves. And with time the story became not even worth the re-telling. Until…
 
America archeologist Michael Heckenberger has recently found some 20 pre-Columbian settlements in the area where Percy Fawcett believed “Z” was located. Each of these cities, connected by causeway highways across the jungle floor, supported between two and five thousand people, giving the entire area a population of perhaps 100,000 people. All in all, it would appear that Percy Fawcett's only mistake was that he had underestimated the Indians of the Amazon, and over rated Plato.

Percy Fawcett failed because he was so intent upon finding a piece of European history in South America, that he missed his great city of "Z", even while he climbed the walls of its moat. And those amongst us who have not been similarly mistaken, have not failed, but we have not really risked much, either.

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