A man of his word

I’m sitting here in what could very well have been Southern Canada, but for a man of his word.

In 1778, the British controlled all of the Northwest Territory, comprising present day Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.  Their primary seat of government was at Detroit, and their method of enforcement was through alliances with local Indian tribes, who felt squeezed out of their ancestral hunting grounds by encroaching American settlers; they easily dominated the French who had previously settled the area to ply the fur trade, but failed to win their hearts and minds, and thereby hangs this tale.

With the encouragement of the British at Detroit, the Indians were regularly raiding settlements in Kentucky, then part of Virginia.  They didn’t need much encouragement, at that, since this had comprised some of the richest hunting and fishing grounds they had known, increasingly being divided and fenced off by Euro-American farmers from the East.  Naturally, this didn’t sit well with these same settlers.

Just a reminder: North America was in the throes of the Revolutionary War at the time, so any excuse for belligerence was more than acceptable.

I suspect the rebels in the East would have been prepared to write off the Northwest Territory; their armies had all they could manage as it was.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, a young officer named George Rogers Clark persuaded Patrick Henry, the governor of Virginia, to back a secret plan: Clark would recruit and train a militia of Kentuckians, known locally as Long Knives for their swords and bayonets, and they would advance on Kaskaskia on the Mississippi, just South of St. Louis, and from there take the lightly held French towns of Cahokia and Vincennes, the latter being the venue for this tale of intrigue.

All went according to plan.  In spite of having been able to recruit a measly 150 men, Clark took his objectives easily, primarily because of the element of surprise, and the fact that the French inhabitants didn’t much care for the Brits anyway.  He returned to Kaskaskia, satisfied.

But, word gets around, doesn’t it, and soon made its way to British General Henry Hamilton, the governor of the territory, at Fort Detroit, and he led a large contingent of soldiers South to Vincennes, and retook it.  Clark, back at Kaskaskia, had no inkling of this, and was in fact busy recruiting for a march on Detroit, where he would have easily been picked off by Hamilton’s troops from the flanks.

Enter Giuseppe Maria Francesco Vigo, a Sardinian and sometime Spanish soldier who had set up shop in St. Louis as a fur trader.  Vigo was at Vincennes, by some accounts sent as a spy by Clark, and by others on his own account as a fur trader.  Vincennes, Indiana is a sleepy backwater on the Wabash River today, but in the 18th century had been a vital link between the French interests in the Great Lakes and their colony at New Orleans, so his presence there was plausible.

In any case, Hamilton smelt a rat and had Vigo arrested before he could return to St. Louis. This didn’t sit well with the local French population, however, who threatened to withhold vital supplies unless Vigo was released.  Hamilton made the best of it by letting Vigo leave Vincennes, but not before extracting a solemn vow: Vigo was not to whisper a word to the Americans at Kaskaskia about the fact that Hamilton controlled Vincennes, on his way back to St. Louis.

And the thing is, he was true to his word.  He went down the Wabash to the Ohio, West to the Mississippi, then North to St. Louis without a word.  After which, he backtracked to Kaskaskia and spilled the whole story to Clark.

The rest, as they say, is history: Clark’s daring winter passage to Vincennes, so unexpected by Hamilton that he had sent most of his troops home until Spring, and the final victory, concluding with Hamilton’s surrender.  The Northwest Territory was ceded to the Americans by the Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War,  in 1783.

Thanks to a man who kept his word.  Otherwise, things might be a little different down here in Southern Illinois, eh?


The man himself, himself.

The Republicare debate

The conservative fury over the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is disingenuous, at best, and outright fraudulent at worst.  The American public seems to have a memory limited to only a few months; almost no one remembers that the ideas forming the foundation of the ACA began life as the Republican alternative to the Clinton attempts to reform the system in 1993.  The alternative, introduced by John Chafee, and even the alternative to the alternative, submitted the following year by Don Nickles (that’s Nickles, not Rickles, although the confusion is understandable) contained most of the provisions of the bill that today is called Obamacare.  Most notable were provisions that mandated individuals to buy insurance, and the formation of exchanges.  Clinton’s efforts were, in any case, hounded out of contention by conservatives on both sides of the congressional aisle, and economic bombardment from the health insurance industry.

But because reforming health care was one of the major pillars of Obama’s campaign for the presidency, and because he won handily, Democrats began working on it soon after he was sworn in in 2009.  Most favored a single payer plan: in a nutshell, nationalized health care, like every other industrialized nation in the world, and a few who are not industrialized, enjoys.  It was immediately clear, however, that conservatives in Congress, Democrats as well as Republicans, would never go for it, due to their paranoia about socialism (which they don’t seem to understand, but we’ll set that aside).

Because most of the provisions of the earlier Republican alternative plans had been passed into law in Massachusetts in 2006, and because this law was not only very successful, but wildly popular among conservatives, who were beside themselves with praise for it, it was decided that this would form the basis of the new Democratic reform proposal, in order to ensure bipartisan support.

Unfirtunately, they forgot one small detail: soon after the election, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell stated on the Senate floor that the number one priority of his party was to limit Obama to one term.  So much for bipartisanship.  It was clear that Republicans would do whatever they deemed necessary to achieve that goal, even to the point of directly contradicting their own position on the provisions of the health care reform they themselves had put forward a few years earlier.  In 1993, not one single Republican made the slightest whimper concerning the constitutionality of the insurance mandate.  In 2009, it suddenly became a constitutional crisis.  What had changed?  Certainly not the constitution; it was the matter of who would benefit politically if the bill passed.

It is often pointed out that no Republican in Congress voted for the final version of ACA.  That is certainly true.  Hardly anyone points out that it passed anyway, because voters had elected more Democrats than Republicans.  Remember majority rule?  Republicans don’t, except when they’re the majority.  GW and his congressional cronies lost no time gutting every Clinton program they legally could, many by executive decree, when it seemed unlikely it could pass Congress.  Now that Democrats control the Senate, Republicans moan about being left out, by which they mean the majority won’t immediately cave in to their demands.

All of this could be dismissed, with a lot of eye rolling,  as business as usual, but for two things:

First, the conservative Supreme Court has decided that corporations can spend as much as they please on political advertising.  Virtually all of political advertising these days is negative.  The end result is that people are daily bombarded with negativity about not only programs that corporations fear will affect their profits, but also about the government in general.  The strategy seems to be obstructionism from the political side, mitigated by a stream of “a-pox-on-both-their-houses” advertising from the corporate side.  Keep pounding that stuff, and people start to believe it.  Amazingly, in spite of this, Obama was reelected with a larger majority that his first term, in an election that was characterized in no uncertain terms by conservatives as a referendum on Obamacare.  They not only lost the presidential race, but also lost seats in both houses of Congress.  Suddenly, mysteriously, it turned out not to have been a referendum after all.

Second, since many state legislatures are controlled by conservatives, widespread gerrymandering all but guaranteed safe seats for conservative Republicans, effectively insulating them from blowback for their obstructionism.  We see the result every day.  Conservatives say the most outlandish things, and suffer no consequences.

What to do?  First of all, gerrymandering must be made illegal.  I am fully aware that Democrats are just as guilty of this, but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous.  Unfortunately, nothing will help much without reversal of Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates of corporate political money, much, if not most of it from multinationals with no particular loyalty to the United States.  You’d think that that, at least, would be unconstitutional.

At the very least, I hope I have set the record straight, although, to be honest, I know this little posting has about the effect of a blow dart in a hurricane.

The myth of The People

So much of politics is sheer romanticism.  With the exception of the cadre of professional cynics who actually run things, we all willingly blind ourselves to reality.  Of the true, died-in-the-wool ideologues, this is so obvious as to merit barely a mention, but it’s no less true of the vast majority of the rest of us as well.  Those on the right imagine themselves as hard-bitten realists. on the left as compassionate champions of the disadvantaged.  The vast “middle,” which is not really between any of the alternatives, but simply uncommitted to either of the major parties, sees itself as a last bastion of reasoned judgment, too smart to buy into the programs of the ideologues.  Never mind that any consistency with regard to policy has long been abandoned by all concerned.

What is fascinating is that all sides regard themselves as typical of The People, and claim to speak for them, or at least on their behalf.  This belief is resistant to any attempt at refutation, even scientifically conducted polls which clearly demonstrate otherwise.  The only time attention is paid to a poll is when it corroborates the affiliation of a party with The People on some particular issue.  Otherwise, it’s “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” to quote a meme attributed to virtually any famous person sufficiently dead to forestall denial.  It’s really a symptom of our hog-wild, post-modern ultrarelativism, on which I have droned sufficiently elsewhere, I believe.

In this case, however, that relativism is grafted onto some time honored political tropes, ready made for bandying about when necessary to muddle things up.  It has long been noted that when someone dies, what the dear departed would have wanted coincides marvelously with what the survivors want.  Frequently, people claim that they are not really fighting over who gets the Rolex, but over what Dad would have wanted.  So, too, in politics, it’s never about whose agenda gets advanced, but what The People want.  And so we get the spectacle of Ted Cruz, in the face of poll after poll showing the majority disapproved of the government shutdown, swearing he was in it to do The Will of The People.

The left doesn’t get a pass on this account either.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard socialists go on and on about The People’s this or The People’s that, oblivious to the fact that most Americans would disagree.  Props to Lenin, for openly admitting to his 3% constituency.

This is not to pass judgment on any particular program or policy; just the pretense about representing people you don’t.

The People, capitalized, almost never coincides with the people, lower case.

Congratulations: the incredibly improbable you

You’ve made it this far.  There were never any guarantees, were there?

Take the Big Bang, for instance.  By all accounts, this event should have resulted in equal amounts of matter and anti-matter, and we all know what that means.  Nothing.  A big, fat zero.  You put the two together, and that’s what you get, so for physicists, the old chestnut of why there’s something rather than nothing takes on a whole new significance.  For some reason, after the Big Annihilation, there was this miniscule (comparatively) amount of stuff left over; that’s us, and all we are in and around.

Even so, a lot of different things could have happened from there.  The laws of nature could have been different.  If gravity was just a tiny bit stronger, no sooner would the universe have begun to expand, than it would have collapsed back on itself.  No time for matter to come together slowly, forming stars while waiting for the Great Dissipation of entropy.  Which brings up another thing: if entropy is a law, if everything ends up at the lowest, most uniform possible state of energy, why wasn’t that the case immediately before the Big Bang?  It could have been.  It should have been.  But it wasn’t; big chunk of luck for us!

Even taking all of that ultimate origin stuff as a given, it’s been no cakewalk.  You start with a bunch of protons and electrons whizzing about the fledgeling universe, but because it’s not uniform, some of them clump together due to our friend gravity.  Actually, enormous clumps of them, so huge the pressure pushes them into units composed of two protons and electron each: helium atoms.  It’s fusion, and lumps of it were happening all over.  Altogether disorderly and un-entropic.  Worse yet, all that energy causes flares, explosions, various ways of ripping it all apart, with the result that bits of stars are flung out, kind of like bits of fur in a cosmic cat fight.  More and more atoms are forced together, and eventually you get all the elements we are familiar with, including the ones we are composed of ourselves.  Stars have clouds of gases and debris swirling around them.  Sooner or later, the same thing that brought the original matter together to make the stars begins happening in the debris clouds.  They start clumping up, and some get rather large, at least by our standards.  We call them planets.

Of course most planets, even the ones in our own little star system, with the notable exception of Earth, are places completely inhospitable for life.  The bulk of them are like Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune, great gassy blobs with no place to even stand on, let alone survive.  Even most that are solid enough to stand on are inhospitable, like Mercury, or Venus.  Just our little Earth is perfect, and it causes us huge headaches on occasion.  True, in the incomprehensible vastness of the universe, there are doubtless others like it, maybe even some better equipped for life.  But they are in a minority.  Just our luck we’re here.

Although, to be honest, even Earth was no picnic for much of its history.  Our lump of clay is a little more than 4.5 billion years old, and for almost the first half of that, its atmosphere was largely nitrogen and methane.  Don’t get me wrong; it was buzzing with life, little anaerobic  specs happily bathed in the major component of our modern farts.  How they came to be is a matter still hotly debated, but we’ll leave that, and the odds of it happening, aside.  Earth was a very warm place, indeed.  Then, catastrophe!

Evil, wicked, cyanobacteria arose, making energy directly from the sun via photosynthesis, and giving off as a waste product — oxygen.  It was a deadly poison, and the tiny microscopic newspapers of the day were full of dire predictions.  Just kidding.  Had they been, though, their predictions would have been all too true.  It’s said that this was by far the greatest extinction event the world has ever witnessed, killing off almost all of the existing life, leaving only the new photosynthesizers and a smattering of the older bits near ocean vents and the like.  Even they had it rough, though, because the sudden burst of oxygen turned almost all the methane into carbon dioxide.  The Earth cooled, and remained encased in ice – snowball Earth – for millions of years.

Well, there it is.  They’re still with us; they’ve become all the rich and glorious diversity of plants.  From our perverse point of view, or course.  We are essentially what’s become of alien invaders wallowing about in their own waste products.

I can’t begin to tell you all the trials and tribulations that followed.  For the next couple of billion years, the Earth vacillated between toasty warm and crippling cold, and all the range between, each shift engendering a new catastrophe for whatever life had grown accustomed to the previous conditions, and a marvelous opportunity for those few misfits who had managed to survive in spite of it.  You really should check out some of the incredible trials and errors along the way: hard-shelled predators with razor like appendages; floating masses of jello; tiny diatoms whose gazillions of weeny skeletons form the vast limestone deposits of Earth.  But let’s cut to the chase.

What with one thing and another, bilaterally symmetrical soft-bodied creatures with internal structures of calcium carbonate evolved: the vertebrates.  I mean, anyone care to calculate the odds?  One major theory of the evolution of skeletons is that organisms found a way to sequester the deadly calcium in their environment, and that that eventually was pressed into service as the internal skeleton, providing rigidity and support for locomotion and other kinetic activities.  Talk about making lemonade from the lemons you’ve been given.

You may think that by this point, we are well on the way to the obvious: us and all the clever world about us.  Not so fast.

Although you could make a case that in such a changeable, unreliable world as Earth, it was just a matter of time before an intelligent, generalized creature like the primates would evolve, we’re still a long way from ourselves here.  Even today, there are hundreds of primate species, with hundreds more having gone extinct.  It is said that at one point, about 60-50,000 years ago, Homo sapiens was down to a breeding population of fewer than a couple of hundred individuals.  We’ve all been squeezed through a very narrow funnel, my friends, which explains why we’re so damned alike.

Think of it.  A species comprised of many thousands, culled to a couple hundred.  Most humans died back then.

But not your ancestors, or mine.  The odds against any one of us being here are astronomical.  Since then, of course, we’ve burgeoned to a population of something over 7 billion.  All the same, countless ancestral lines have gone extinct since the big crunch of 60-50k alone.

But not yours, and not mine.  At any point along the vast expanse of time, from the first flicker of life to now, your personal ancestor organism might have been one of the countless gazillions that died without issue.  Congratulations.

Now, about those horrendous odds you say you’re up against…