JUNE 2017

JUNE  2017
J.P. Morgan as a young man in his own words - "The Public Be Damned."

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Friday, June 12, 2015

GOD AND EGO

I believe that if Uthman ibn Affan had been a cruel and heartless man, millions of lives might have been saved, and history would have been kinder to today's followers of Islam. This is ironic because for most of his life Uthman had been a successful merchant, with a real talent for the cold heartless logic of an account book. It was only after he accepted the migrating embrace of Islam, and became the third Caliph, or “Commander of the faithful”, in 644 C.E.., that Uthman’s compassion for his fellow Muslims, inspired directly by the teachings of his friend and leader, the Prophet Muhammad, that Uthman's humanity lead to the greatest threat facing Islam today.
Muhammad died peacefully in 632, leaving his followers to make what they could of his life’s work. Abu Bakr, the first man to issue the public call to prayer in Mecca, was elected the first Successor of the Messenger of God, or Caliph,  Rasul Allah. During his two year reign he managed to put down rebellions, invade and begin the conversions of Iran, Syria and what is today Palestine. Abu Bakr died on Monday, 23 August , 634, naming Umar as his successor. Umar -  also known as Farooq the Great -  ruled as the second Caliph for ten years, conquering the Persian Empire. He was attacked by an assassin at morning prayers in 644, and lived just long enough to name a committee to pick his successor. And as we all know, no good could can come from a selection committee.
The choice of the next Caliph fell to an election, or shura, amongst five men. Two stated publicly that they were willing to take on the burden of being Caliph themselves -  Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib and Uthman, known as the “man of two lights” because he had married two of the Prophet’s daughters. In the shura among the remaining three, two split, one supporting Ali and the other supporting Uthman. This left the choice to Abd al-Rahman. He announced his decision at a public meeting at a mosque - Uthman. The general acclimation left Ali with little choice but to support his competitor. But he felt cheated.
Uthman was from the Umayyad clan, one of the 15 families within the Quraysh tribe of Arabs. The Umayyard were patricians, merchants and power brokers in the city of Mecca (above), a holy city long before the rise of monotheism. Nestled among mountains, 50 miles inland from the Red Sea, this oasis had been founded by Abraham himself, a prophet in Judaism before Islam. But the political center of government for the new empire was in Medina, 200 miles north of Mecca. Here the power lay in the hands of the Hashemite clan – the family of Ali ibn Abi Talib..
Once in Medina, Uthman found himself in charge of a growing military and religious empire. But Uthman saw himself as primarily a religious leader. His behavior was so pious that even the Prophet himself had said of Uthman that “angels feel bashful before him.” Uthman was a handsome man and vain enough that he dyed his beard. Every time he smiled he flashed gold, a hint of his wealth. He was a patrician, and most of his close friends even within the faith, were also wealthy. And that was to prove to be his blind spot.
From the first day of his 10 year reign, Uthman was the target of complaints of graft and favoritism. Some of those complaints were probably true - in an expanding empire such growing pains were to be expected. And grumblings are always heard even under good government. But there was an undercurrent of discontent nurtured by the man who might have been Caliph, the Shiat Ali Talib. And in the eleventh year of Uthman’s reign, the whispers sparked into action, just across the Red Sea, in Egypt.
In 656 Uthman called for a special Hajii, the holy journey to Mecca each Muslim is expected to make at least once in their lives. This special Hajii was to be for those unhappy with Uthman’s reign. The Caliph publicly promised to listen to any complaints, and promised to correct the legitimate ones. For the shiat Ali this was bad news. Uthman possessed the personality to sway any dissident in his immediate presence. Something would have to be done about Uthman before the holy winter months filled Mecca with hundreds of thousands of his supporters and soon to be supporters.
In the summer of 656, 1,000 Egyptians arrived in Medina, and publicly begged Ali to accept the Caliphate. Publicly he refused. It was a fine show of humility. And Uthman's refusal to act against the Egyptians was an honest moral choice, but also a clear sign of weakness. Because next  the Egyptians surrounded  Uthmans’s house. They publicly announced that no harm would come to any Uthman supporter who did not resist them. And Uthman countered by instructing his supporters to offer no resistance to the Egyptians. He even freed his slaves, saying he did not wish any blood shed in his defense.
Thus began the most amazing 20 days in all of Islam. It reminds me a bit of Thomas Becket, calmly conducting vespers while the four knights closed in to slaughter him. At first Urthman was allowed to travel to the mosque and lead prayers, the Egyptians even praying with him. Then, angry words were exchanged between Uthman’s supporters and the Egyptians. Stones were thrown, one of them striking Uthman in the head. He was carried back to his house, bloody and unconscious.
Even now, when his supporters begged to be allowed to defend him, Uthman refused, insisting he did not wish to spill the blood of fellow Muslims. But with the Hajii beginning, there remained the possibility that the thousands gathering in Mecca would be induced to march to Medina and rescue their Caliph. At least that was what worried the Shiat Ali. He decided to take action.
The siege of Uthman’s home became complete, shutting off even food and water. Finally, one night, as the injured Caliph was saying prayers with his wives, three Egyptians burst into the bedroom and began to strike the old man in the head with clubs and swords. His wife Naila attempted to block the blows, and lost her fingers. She was tossed aside, and Uthman was beaten to death.   
The murder of Uthman was  a political assassination, justified by religion, and the trauma it caused burdens Islam to this day. The supporters of Shite Ali,  now called Shiats,  believe that Ali had been chosen by Mohammad, and that the Caliphs who preceded him, especially Uthman, were false leaders. The supporters of the murdered Uthman believe the Prophet himself wished the leadership to be chosen by elections, by shura. And they take their name from that concept of a democratic religion: Sunni. The current faithful of Sunni and Shiat have no more in common with their founders than Martin Luther had in common with Jesus, or Jesus with Moses.
Shiat Ali finally achieved the office of Caliph in 656, but it brought him little comfort. First he had to put down a rebellion by one of Muhammad’s wives, Aisha. Then, he quickly faced a more serious rebellion led by Mu'awiya Ummayad, the governor of Damascus and Uthman’s cousin. This time the battle was a draw, and in order to hold onto his hard won office, Ali was forced to compromise with the Sunni’s. But this offended the more radical shi'ites, who, in God’s name, had already murdered one Caliph. It was a small step for them, in 661, to murder a second, the very man they had served in murdering the first - Shiat Ali.
The Ummayad clan would later be almost wiped out by the Shi’ites of the Hashemite in the year 750 at the Battle of Zab. And while the Sunni are today the majority in Iraqi and Iran, the Hassemite Shi’ites are the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, and the guardians of Mecca and Medina. Holding these holy sites ensures that the majority of Muslims across the world today are Shi’ites.
Fourteen hundred years later, the theological justifications for the murder of Caliph Uthmen, as well as his refusal to take action to defend himself and his supporters,  stand as yet more examples of humans thinking they hear the voice of God, when in fact they are only hearing the echo of their own ego. And Muslims do not have the patent on that.
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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

FIRST BLOOD Part One

I believe that Maria Rosetta O'Neal (above) was no hero. She was, in fact, insane. Her affliction poisoned everything and everyone she touched, until it infected a nation of 31 ½ million people and killed over 750,000 of them over four years -  2 people out of every 100 Americans alive in 1860 . She was not personally responsible for all those deaths. But Rose did her part. Her justification was that when she was four years old her father had been murdered – by one of the slaves on his Maryland plantation. And his death and the loss of emotional and financial security he had provided, fueled Rose's life long hatred and fear of the black slaves who surrounded her and on whom she depended and whom she despised. Courage and sacrifice in service of a delusion is not heroic. It is pathological.
Wild” Rose grew into one of the most beautiful women in Washington, D.C., with flashing “tempestuous eyes” and soft olive skin "delicately flushed with color". She was also smart and witty and skilled in the bitter social wars of the small southern town that Washington has always been. But her lack of a dowry meant she did not marry until 1835, at the advanced age of 18.  Robert Greenhow was twice her age but could match her intelligence and whit, and he was wealthy enough to provide her with security. After Robert died suddenly while in San Francisco in 1854, the widow won a $10,000 lawsuit against that town, and returned to Washington independently wealthy and having entered the Victorian no man's land between virgin and wife.  The combination of wealth, political connections and sexual availability made her one of the most powerful women in the capital.
In 1860 this “...southern woman, born with revolutionary blood in my veins”, viewed Abraham Lincoln's election as an attack upon “our domestic institution”, by those “ignorant...of the benign and paternal manner in which it was conducted in the South.”  As part of this “paternal” institution, there were at least six “stinking and reeking” slave pens and sales lots where human beings were bought and sold like cattle, within walking distance of the White House and Capital Hill, in Washington.  It was Rose Greenhow's devotion to that  “paternal institution”  that made her an eager  recruit for the Confederacy of the Slave States. Rose Greenhow served as a conduit for one of the three spy rings collecting and dispatching intelligence to the Confederate army in Virginia, and the capital in Richmond, 100 miles to the south.
The obvious choice to command the federal army charged with crushing this pro-slavery revolt should have been the highest ranking officer, "Old Fuss and Feathers", General Winfield Scott. He was a brave decorated veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexico war of 1848.  But by 1861, he was 74 years old , and weighed 300 pounds (above). General Scott had become “Old Fat and Feeble”.  Scott's plan for dealing with the rebellion was to capture southern ports and blockade the coast line, forcing the southern radicals to eventually face the reality that the south was not financially nor culturally independent.  But the northern public, insulted by the April attack on Fort Sumter, was in no mood to slowly constrict the south like an anaconda snake. The northern public wanted the rebels punished now, this summer of 1861
Given the demand for immediate action, Scott's choice to lead the troops in the field was Colonel Robert E. Lee (above), “the ablest soldier I know” according to Scott.. But Lee was hesitant about attacking his home state of Virginia.  Offended, “Fuss and Feathers” barked, “I have no place in my army for equivocal men.” So Lee resigned and went to work for the Confederacy. Only then did Scott pick the next ranking officer, commander of the expanding Washington garrison, Irwin Mcdowell.
Born to money, and married to it as well, McDowell was the patrician in uniform, most often described as “odd”. His personality almost sounds like a mild form of autism. He could not remember faces or names, he was better at numbers than people, and was so painfully shy that when forced to speak his face would flush and his speech would slur, which some mistook for drunkenness. In fact the general was a teetotaler. He fed his insecurities with food. “At dinner he was such a Gargantuan feeder...he had but little time for conversation.” And the only thing he was certain of was that the 55,000 militia gathered in Washington that spring were not yet an army.
McDowell must have felt at times like a sane man trapped in a mad house. “I wanted very much a little time,” he wrote later, “an opportunity to test my machinery, to move it around and see whether it worked smoothly or not.” But the press for action, the drum beat for invasion, the demands for a march on Richmond had reached a frenzy. The majority of the troops in Washington (above)  were 90 day militia, called up on April Fools day, and due to be released on the first of August, adding the pressure for McDowell to use them before he lost them. The new President seemed to agree. Lincoln urged McDowell, “You are green, it is true, but they are green also; you are all green alike.” Still, McDowell resisted a march on Richmond. Instead, he decided, “The first object should be to reach as soon as possible the Manassas Junction...”
By 1850 it was already obvious that railroads so simplified supply problems, that all future wars would be fought along rail lines. And because of that, the little village of Centerville, Virginia, which had no railroad, loomed large in McDowell's plans. The tiny village of about 200 sat on a plateau dominating the surrounding terrain, including, 27 miles south of Alexandria, the junction of the north/south Orange and Alexandria railroad and the east/west Manassas Gap railroad. Occupy Centerville, and it was a short step across Bull Run creek to cut the Manassas Gap railroad. This would seperate  the 10,000 rebels in the Shenandoah Valley from the 21,000 rebels in northern Virginia. Once federal troops had out flanked the Manassas Junction rail yards (below), the rebels would be forced to retreat another 40 miles south to the Rappahannock River.  And that would put the Federal army just 30 miles outside of Richmond.
This was the plan approved by Lincoln and his cabinet, and the Congressional Republicans, the last week of June, 1861. And on Tuesday, 9 July 1861, Rose Greenhow composed a warning for the rebel commanders. She wrote that in one week (on 16 July),  McDowell's entire force of upwards of 55,000 men, would advance along a line from Alexandria and Arlington Heights toward Fairfax Courthouse and Centerville. Their ultimate goal, she wrote, was to capture Manassas Junction.
This encoded message was folded and sewn into a silk packet no larger than a silver dollar. Rose entrusted this missive to 19 year old Betty Duvall (above), who tucked it into the hair bun at the back of her head.
Dressed as a farm woman, Miss Duvall drove a single horse cart across the Chain Bridge (above) over the Potomac River and canal.  Switching to a  horse at a safe house on the Virginia shore, Miss Duvall followed the turnpike around Arlington Heights and Robert E, Lee's plantation, and trotted down the dark road for another ten miles, to the Rebel outpost at Fairfax Courthouse (below).
Here, a rebel picket stopped the woman, who demanded to see an officer. When South Carolinian General Milledge L. Bonham appeared, the young lady announced she had an urgent message for the over all commander of rebel forces in northern Virginia.  Bonham agreed to see that it was delivered as quickly as possible. "Whereupon," wrote Bonham,  “she took out her tucking comb and let fall the longest and most beautiful roll of hair I have ever seen. She took then from the back of her head, where it had been safely tied, a small package..” By breakfast on Wednesday, 10 July,  Rose's warning was being read in Manassas Junction by Louisiana native, General Gustave Toutant-Beauregard , and before lunch in Richmond by Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy.
It was Davis who ordered the commander of the 10,000 rebels at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, General Joe Johnston (above), to, transfer his troops 50 miles east via the Manassas Gap railroad, to support Beauregard in defending Manassas Junction, as soon as he could safely do so.  Now all the rebels at Harper's Ferry (below) needed was for the Union army to make a mistake. They did not have long to wait.
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Sunday, June 07, 2015

54 - 40 OR FIGHT! MAYBE.

I can't help wondering why so many politicians keep calling for a new approach to politics  Aren't the same politics we've been using for the last 10,000 years good enough?  Maybe the real problem lies not with the lying, two faced, double dealing, back-stabbing, opportunistic, insincere politicians we have, but with the idiots who vote for them: i.e. us.  Check my math, please: politicians lie, politicians get elected. Could there be a connection?  Let me give you a little example from ancient history, so nobody feels insulted.
James K. Polk (above) was America's eleventh President, serving from 1845 to 1849. He was, until Richard Nixon, our most secretive President. He did not even tell his own cabinet members what he was thinking. He was a Jackson Democrat,  and no matter what your history books tell you he did not campaign on the phrase "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight" – that came up later. During his actual campaign for President, Polk was most famous for insisting he did not brand his slaves. And trust me, this smear was so good they still haven’t figured out who did it.
The story was first published in the 21August, 1844 edition of the Ithaca New York "Chronicle". It was a a Whig Party newspaper. And the story claimed to be a letter to the editor, quoting a three paragraph extract from an unpublished book, titled “Roorback’s Tour Through the Western and Southern States…” The extract claimed to detail Baron Von Roorback's conversations with a group of slave traders on the Duck River in Tennessee. “Forty of these unfortunate beings had been purchased, I was informed, by the Honorable J.K. Polk…; the mark of a branding iron, with the initials of his name on their shoulders, distinguishing them from the rest.”  Now, even in 1844 the idea of branding human beings, even those treated as slaves, was appalling to many people...even in places where the economy had been built on slavery.
Which was why the story was picked up by the "Albany Evening Journal", and other Whig newspapers, particularly in the 1844 “battleground states” of New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Many voters in those swing states were outraged that a man standing for President would do something so despicable as to brand human beings the same way you brand cattle. To Whig politicians the story from "Roorback’s Tour" was almost too good to be true.  And almost as quick as Republican bloggers caught Dan Rather, the Democratic press found out there was no such book and no such Baron. The details about Polk had been inserted into a real travel book, of a run in with some slave traders on Virginia’s New River. Polk’s farm was in Tennessee, so the inventor of the smear had shifted the scene to where it would do the most good. Besides, it was not common practice to brand slaves. Like whipping scars, branding tended to reduce their value as property,  since it indicated this slave had a tendency to escape. Slaves were certainly whipped and branded because in 844, most Americans still believed black slaves were property and would have been equally offended if some government official tried to tell them how to treat their horses or how to slaughter their hogs.
Still, embarrassed at being caught repeating what was so obviously a fabrication, the Whigs pinned the whole thing on William Linn, a lawyer and a Democratic operative in Ithaca. But why would a Democrat smear his own candidate? Well, if I were a believer in conspiracy theories, I might say that this kind of allegation against Polk was actually a fairly safe charge to make. Polk did own slaves, but his Whig opponent in the election, Henry Clay, owned even more slaves than Polk did.  And it has been suggested by some historians that the “Roorback” story was a case of nineteenth century “wedge” politics. Abolitionism was still a minor issue in 1844, but abolitionists formed a solid voting block in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, those key battleground states. Convince enough abolitionists in those states that the Whigs were lying to them, and they just might choose the Democrat Polk over the Whig Clay as the lesser of two evils. And the letter to the Ithaca Chronicle had been signed, “An Abolitionist”, thus adding insult to the injury.
Well, maybe....And maybe that theory implies a level of sophisticated conspiracy that did not exist in the simpler culture and times of 1844 – and certainly would not have existed in Athens in 415 B.C., when Alcibiades was accused of vandalizing statues of the god Hermes.
You see Hermes was the mythical inventor of fire, and "...a robber, a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night, a thief at the gates....who protects and takes care of all travelers, miscreants, harlots, old cronies and thieves and injured athletes".  Each Greek home had an anatomically correct statue of Hermes standing on its front lawn, and it was common practice for visitors to pause at the stature and stroke his stone phallus for good luck before knocking on the front door. And when the owner left the house for the day or a business trip, they would also give the statue a tug for good luck.  And that was why it was so shocking that on the morning that Athens was launching a massive naval assault on Sicily, the city awoke to discover that every home statue of Hermes had its phallus knocked off during the night.  
It sounds to my modern ears as if the neighborhood kids had been drinking sour wine on the street corner and started smashing phalluses as a prank. But to the devout in Athens (and there were many who believed in the gods) it was also sacrilege. And rumors began almost immediately that the person responsible was the golden boy politician who was heading the expedition, and known for his past sacrilegious opinions, Alcibiades (above). Of course Alcibiades had his own theory. He thought it had been the work of his chief political opponent and co-commander of the Sicilian expedition, Nicias.  Two thousand five hundred years later, it is impossible to know who the phallus hackers really were and why they were whacking off in the dark.. But whether they planned it all or just took advantage of the situation, the one thing we know for certain is, that the people arguing both sides of the scandal were politicians.     
The point is, politicians have been gaming voters since voting was invented. And voters have been playing along, else the game would not have remained so popular for so long. And that is why when a politician tells me he is selling something new, especially when it is something I want to believe, my first reaction is,  “Pull the other one.,”  When the American political system works  (which it has not been doing recently)  it is been based upon pragmatism, as it was in the 1844 election.  Polk won 49.5% of the popular vote to Clay’s 48.1 %, and part of that razor thin margin was victories in New York and Pennsylvania - by less than 6,000 votes in both states.  Those two states gave Polk 62 Electoral Votes, out of his sixty-five vote margin of victory (170 to 105). It seems that if the Roorback story was a double blind trick, it worked.
Oh,... and remember the phrase “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!”? That was not used in the 1844 election. Well, it was actually invented by Ohio Senator William “Earthquake” Allen, known for his thundering speeches, and he used it well after the election. The number was  the Southern border (54 degrees & 40 minutes of latitude) claimed by Russia when they owned Alaska. A simple glance at a modern map will confirm that the modern border between America and Canada,  agreed upon by President Polk, was (and is) the 49th parallel. So much for the “…Or fight!” part of the slogan. Have you noticed how often politicians don’t actually mean what they seem to say? You might say they make a career out of it. And always have. And we keep buying what they say. 
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