Friday, November 27, 2015

229.2 - The source-based story of the "First Thanksgiving"

The source-based story of the "First Thanksgiving"

Speaking of being thankful, this show is on the week after Thanksgiving, so it seemed the right time to engage in what has become for me sort of a yearly tradition, where I say gather 'round, kiddies, I'm going to tell you the real story, the based-on-actual-historical-sources story, of the first thanksgiving. By which, of course, I mean the event that occurred in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts in the fall of 1621 which is the basis of our now-traditional thanksgiving holiday.

One of the reasons I do this every year is that it is truly amazing just how much misinformation, mythology, and general muddle-headedness there is out there on this topic and I like to try to bring some hard historical reality to the discussion.

I had thought of skipping it this year because there are so many other topics to cover from xenophobia and racism to war fever to global warming to new developments on things I’ve talked about in the past such as civil asset forfeiture and tasers and a lot more.

What convinced me to do this instead is that I sat down to watch a heavily-hyped special on NatGeo channel about the voyage of the Mayflower and the establishment of Plymouth in 1620.

The fact that it was called by the ahistorical name "Saints and Strangers" gave me pause, but it was supposed to have been researched carefully, so I was looking forward to it.

Literally and I do mean literally within the first two minutes there were at least four clear historical errors, at least two of them significant. At that point I gave up and decided that yes, I would do this again since it appears there is still cause.

So to start our Thanksgiving tale, consider this:
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And though it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
That comes from a letter dated December 11, 1621. It was written to a "loving and old friend" in England by Edward Winslow, a Mayflower passenger and a leader in the early years of the colony. It was contained in a book published in England in 1622 under the rather ponderous title of A Relation or Journal of the beginning and proceedings of the English Plantation settled at Plimoth in New England, by certain English Adventurers both Merchants and others.

The book is popularly known today by the less cumbersome name of Mourt's Relation and consists of eyewitness accounts of various events during the first year of the settlement.

Here's why that letter is important here: It is the only contemporaneous account of what we know as the "First Thanksgiving" which is known to exist.

The only other even near-contemporaneous account comes from William Bradford, long-time governor of the settlement, who wrote about it in his journal at least 10 to 12 years later. Even there he just sort of brushes by it, endorsing Winslow by referring to "not feigned but true reports."
They now began to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses against the winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took in good store, of which every family had its portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so large of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.
That's it. That's all of it. That's what the entire "First Thanksgiving" story is built on. Everything else is speculation, interpretation, and guesswork, some of it informed, all too much of it not.

Some things we can tell from the accounts: For one thing, based on other references in those same sources, we know that the event took place after September 18 and before November 9. Mostly likely, it was in late September or the beginning of October, as that would have been shortly after harvest.

In considering the event, the first thing to realize is that this was not a "thanksgiving." In the period, a thanksgiving was a religious occasion, a day set aside for prayer to give thanks to God for some special and unexpected blessing.

The first public day of thanksgiving in the town actually came in the summer of 1623: A crop-threatening drought had lead to a day of "humiliation," a day of fasting and prayer to beg forgiveness for whatever they had done to cause God to bring this on them. Literally immediately after, the same day, there came a soaking rain which saved the crops and so a day of thanksgiving seemed appropriate.

So no, this was not a thanksgiving. Such days would occur occasionally as the cause arose; to plan for one in advance, much less to plan for one every year as we do now, would be regarded as a gross presumption on God's will and intentions.

What this was instead was a very traditional, very secular, English harvest feast, a celebration of a good harvest to which it was customary to invite those who had been helpful to you over the course of the year (which is very likely why the natives, who had indeed been helpful, were there). True, the settlers didn't have a good harvest - Bradford describes it as "small" - but they had a harvest. That surely raised everyone's spirits: It indicated they were going to make it. Reason enough for a celebration, especially considering what they had been through so far.

I want to make a quick aside to explain a rather subtle point more clearly: Europeans of the 17th century - especially the more religiously-conservative sorts, such as those that lead the Plimoth (as it was often spelled at the time) settlement - did not make the sort of clear distinctions between what is "religious" and what is "secular" that we do today. The sense of, a feeling of an awareness of, the "hand of God" or the "will of God" was much more central to their lives than it is to the vast majority of us now.

What that means here is that the 1621 harvest feast would surely have included prayers of thanks to God and perhaps a sermon from their religious leader, Elder William Brewster, as significant features of the event, just as prayer would have been a frequent feature of their everyday lives, from meals to musket drills to mucking about in their fields, tending the crops. However, they would not have regarded this as "a day of thanksgiving" as they understood the term: While the prayers would have been significant features of the event, they would not have been the central features; not the purpose, not the point, not the driver behind it. Celebration was, feasting was.

Put another way, had we been able to witness the 1621 feast, to our modern eyes there would very likely have been more than enough praying, giving thanks, and singing of psalms and hymns to make it look like a religious or at least religiously-inspired event, but to a person of the 17th century it would have looked about as secular as such a thing got.

Anyway, back to our story. As for the eternal question of what they ate, we can confident they had fowl such as duck or goose (as the governor "sent four men on fowling" in preparation) and yes, quite possibly turkey ("of which they took many," Bradford said) They very likely also had fish, specifically cod and bass, and quite possibly deer.

Another aside: I say "quite possibly" to raise the issue of using historical sources without running too far ahead of them, a sin of which too many of the revisionist accounts are guilty: Even though Winslow says the natives "went out and killed five deer, which they ... bestowed on our governor ... and others" we can't tell if those deer were brought soon enough to be butchered, dressed, and presented as part of the feast or if they were brought afterward as a sort of thank you, a reciprocal gift in return for having been "feasted" for three days. Bradford's mention of venison doesn't resolve things because in the period, "venison" meant "hunted meat," which obviously includes deer but isn't limited to it. So while they quite probably had deer, either from the natives or their own hunting or both, we can't say it definitively.

Edward Winslow
Getting back to the menu, lobster and other shellfish is another real possibility; elsewhere in the letter that I quoted Winslow mentions that they are abundant in the area - as are eels, of which, he claims, they could take "a hogshead in a night." If you think "eels, eew," know that an English person of the period would have responded "They're just another sort of fish." (A hogshead is a cask holding about 63 gallons of liquid. Yeah, Winslow was likely exaggerating; he was like that.)

By the way, that portrait of Edward Winslow was done in 1651, 30 years  later, after he had returned to England. It is the only verified picture of a Mayflower passenger known to exist. As for the rest of them, we have no idea what they looked like beyond the traditional description of Myles Standish as short with red hair, a description given some backing by the fact that in a book called The New English Canaan, a nasty satire of the Plimoth settlement written in 1637 by Thomas Morton, Standish is identified by the name "Captain Shrimpe."

Beyond that, we can reasonably argue for some others foods such as a sort of pie made from squash from their gardens, sweetened with dried fruit which they would have brought with them from England, salad from other stuff from their gardens, and a sort of coarse corn bread. Water would have been the major and perhaps the only beverage: Their supply of barley would be limited (Winslow says the "English grains," which would mean such as wheat, rye, and oats as well as barley, "grew indifferent good") and there is no mention of hops. No hops, no beer; no much barley, not much ale. Even if they did have some barley, there may well would not have been enough time for brewing since harvest. And while they did bring beer with them on the voyage, it is highly unlikely that there was any significant amount of that left nearly a year later. So they might have had a little ale or even maybe a little wine brought from England and reserved for a special occasion, but again is was likely mostly water.

So that is pretty much it, pretty much everything we know or can reasonably assume about the event. Not much to build a whole mythology on, is it?

Even so, it drove the pap we got fed as children, marked by images of picnic tables laden with turkey, mashed potatoes, and apple pies surrounded by natives dressed like they just came from the great plains and smiling "Pilgrims" dressed in the fashions of the 1690s.

And that same sparseness of detail - and one of the reasons I go through this every year - is probably a good part of the reason the event provides so much latitude to those who want to replace the childhood (and childish) image of noble settlers and savage natives with one of noble natives and savage settlers, who every year, regular as clockwork, treat us to the historical revisionism that has become as traditional as turkey and cranberry sauce. In place of the happy talk mythologies of peace, love, and harmony we were spoon-fed as children we find people snarling out dark tales of drunken, murderous, bloodthirsty settlers facing off with natives "crashing the party" at the feast and doing it in such numbers because Massasoit feared he'd be kidnapped or killed otherwise. It is a vision that, as much as the earlier one, is an attempt to overwrite history with ideology. It is, in other words, pure bunk.

In point of historical fact, relations between Plymouth and the neighboring natives were reasonably good for several decades. There were stresses and strains and disruptions, yes, but for the most part they managed to keep intact the peace agreement-mutual defense pact they made in the spring of 1621.

Things gradually got worse and I won't go into all the reasons why but the biggest two were population pressure and disputes over land that were rooted in vast cultural differences between the natives and the English. The native culture had no concept of land ownership. Not just they didn't own the land or that everyone owned the land, or the Great Spirit owned the land; no, the idea of land as something you could possess just didn't exist. To own something, for the natives, meant you could pick it up and carry it away with you. How could you own something if you have to leave it behind anytime you go anywhere? Which makes real sense, especially for a semi-nomadic people who live in one area for part of the year and another area the rest of the year. But for the settlers, for any European, land ownership was an everyday concept. That cultural chasm was a source of repeated conflict.

The peace finally, irrevocably, completely broke down - but that was in 1675, more than 50 years after the so-called "First Thanksgiving." The point here is that at that time, in the fall of 1621, native-settler relations were good.

In fact, the very next sentences of the Winslow letter I quoted above are these:
We have found the Indians very faithful in their covenant of peace with us; very loving and ready to pleasure us. We often go to them, and they come to us; some of us have been fifty miles by land in the country with them.
Winslow also says that all the other native leaders in the vicinity have made peace with Plymouth on the same terms as Massasoit, as a result of which, he asserts, "there is now great peace amongst the Indians themselves, which was not formerly." He goes on to say that:
We for our parts walk as peaceably and safely in the wood as in the highways in England. We entertain them familiarly in our houses, and they as friendly bestowing their venison on us. They are a people without any religion or knowledge of God, yet very trusty, quick of apprehension, ripe-witted, just.
(Just to be certain you know, "trusty" means trustworthy, not trusting, and "quick of apprehension" does not mean quick to be apprehensive. It means quick to understand, quick to grasp the meaning of something. As for "religion," in his later book Good News from New England Winslow says "therein I erred" and goes on the describe the native religion, as least as he understands it.)

That does not sound either like bloodthirsty settlers eager to kill natives or like natives who feared contact with those same settlers or felt they had to display mass force to avoid being kidnapped or killed. If you're still not convinced, consider that in June 1621, three or four months earlier, the town felt it necessary to send a message to Massasoit requesting that he restrain his people from coming to the settlement in such numbers. This is from Mourt's Relation, this is the message they sent to Massasoit.
But whereas his people came very often, and very many together unto us, bringing for the most part their wives and children with them, they were welcome; yet we being but strangers as yet at Patuxet, alias New Plymouth, and not knowing how our corn might prosper, we could no longer give them such entertainment as we had done, and as we desired still to do.
That's how "afraid" the natives were of the settlers.

Assigning the role of angel or demon to either side is trash: Neither of these peoples were either. Neither were saints, neither were devils.

So I reject the revisionist history, indeed I resent the revisionist history. I resent it first because it’s lousy history. It's based on ideology, not information; it looks to satisfy demands of politics, not of scholarship, and it is every bit as full of false tales and mythology as the nonsense and pap that we got fed as schoolchildren.

Plymouth in the fall of 1621 genuinely was a scene of peaceful and friendly relations, of good feeling, between English settlers and their nearest native neighbors. The "First Thanksgiving" was a moment of celebration when everyone on both sides, even if they were still wary each of the other, believed that yes, this was going to work out. That wasn’t going to happen; it was a false hope, even a foolish hope. It was brief enough moment, lasting by even a generous understanding no more than a few decades, and a rare enough moment in our nation's history of cruelty toward and genocide of the native peoples of this continent such that while "the First Thanksgiving" shouldn't be a source of happily-ever-after "why can't we all just get along" fairy stories, neither is there any need to co-opt it into the service of ideology-driven revisionism.

Because that moment of hope did exist. And frankly, I resent the attempts to strip away that one moment of hope in pursuit of a modern political agenda.

I remember a friend of mine some years ago talking about “the urge to find angelic forces in the world,” that is, the seeming need many of us have to fix on some group, some movement, some something that we can convince ourselves is utterly pure in its motives and behavior. In our attempts to find some better balance in our understanding of what was done to the natives of North America, the cruelties inflicted on them, the racism and bigotry which targeted them, too many of us in considering the “Pilgrims” of Plymouth have chosen to simply swap one mythology for a perhaps more satisfying but equally false one.

Balance, it seems, is still a long way off.

So anyway, I hope you enjoyed your Turkey Day, I hope you had time to spend with your family or friends or better yet both and I hope you can understand why I celebrate the day as an expression less of thankfulness for the past (or even the present) than as an expression of hope for the future. That hope, too, may prove as foolish as that of 1621, indeed these days I often think it is - but the blunt fact is, hope is also the one absolute, indispensable requirement for any effort to make that future a better one.

Sources cited in links:

229.1 - Rejecting Syrian immigrants is xenophobia

Rejecting Syrian immigrants is xenophobia

I would say I'm outraged, but I'm not. I'm frustrated and depressed. I said last week that the attacks in Paris had resulted in old questions - what do we do - getting old answers - more bombs.

But those aren't the only old answers we're hearing become louder by the day. No, we hear cries from a very old playbook, one we seem to refer back to whenever we feel pressed, a playbook of knee-jerk fear, a playbook of bigotry, a playbook of xenophobia, so that even when, decades later, we have the decency to feel at least embarrassed by what we did, we still turn right back to it every time some event somewhere turns us again into a nation of bed-wetters, sniveling about how all of "them" - whoever the current "them" may be - are all out to get us.

So we have seen calls for internment camps, we have seen proposals for a national database of all Muslims, for closing mosques, we have seen refugees compared to rabid dogs.

We have seen governors not only declare they will keep Syrian refugees out of their state, but at least one, Mike Pence of Indiana, has told a specific family, in effect, to get out - even though they have neither legal nor constitutional authority to do any of that.

And we have seen, most recently, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly pass a bill that has the single and deliberate intention of keeping Syrian refugees from entering the US by hardening the requirements for admission under the refugee resettlement program. Pres. Obama has proposed admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees under the program this fiscal year, a fraction of the hundreds of thousands Europe is dealing with but still 10,000 too many for the bigots and mouth-breathers of the US House.

And - you need to know this - this bill was passed with the help of 47 Democrats, including several who would claim to be liberals, who voted for this piece of bigoted, xenophobic trash.

One way they'll justify this, you can be sure, is claiming that their constituents want it - although what their constituents want never seems to matter when the interests of a rich donor are involved. According to a recent Bloomberg poll, 53 percent of Americans - although it seems odd to call them Americans when they seem to have forgotten what America is supposed to be about - but 53% want the resettlement plans be stopped and another 11%, really letting their bigotry hang out, said the program should continue but only admit Christian Syrian refugees.

Oh, but it's all for "security," we'll be told. It's all for "protection" because some terrorist might slip in among the refugees. We don't want to keep them out, we just want to make sure that there are no terrorists among them!

Anyone who tells you that is either lying through their teeth or has no idea what they are talking about. There is no third option.

The refugee resettlement program involved here has been going on for about 40 years. Over 3 million refugees have been resettled in the US and not one of them has ever committed a terrorist act against the US.

Terrorists coming in? Seriously? Are you really going to argue that Daesh is going to try to bring in terrorists through a program with background checks so extensive that it takes 18 months to 2 years to get through them and which already turns away half of applicants? Seriously?

Gov. Dannel Malloy
Which is why that House bill has nothing to do with security and everything to do with blind panic - along with, I strongly suspect, some making use of that panic for their own political and ideological ends.

The only upside I can find here is that Sen. Harry Reid says that bill will not pass the Senate and whatever his faults and they are many, he knows how to count.

Oh, and that family that effectively got kicked out of Indiana? They resettled in Connecticut, where they were personally greeted by Gov. Dannel Malloy, calling accepting them "morally the right thing to do."

They say be thankful for small favors, and these really are small in the face of the sweeping waves of brain-dead paranoia rushing across our nation, but they are favors and so I will be thankful.

Sources cited in links:

Left Side of the Aisle #229

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of November 26 - December 2, 2015

This week:

Rejection of Syrian refugees is xenophobia

The "first Thanksgiving"

Sunday, November 22, 2015

228.5 - Footnote: Vigilers in French city of Lille drive away right-wing xenophobes

Footnote: Vigilers in French city of Lille drive away right-wing xenophobes

Just as a footnote to that: The day after the Paris attacks, hundreds of people attended a silent vigil in the French city of Lille.

About 15 minutes into the vigil, it was interrupted by a group of around 15 people claiming to be supporters of the National Front, a far-right political party lead by notorious anti-immigrant bigot Marine le Pen.

The group set off firecrackers and screamed "Expel Islamists" while unfurling a large banner with the same message.

They got more than they bargained for: The crowd turned on them, shouting "Go away fascists." The fascists were forced back across the square and had to leave under the protection of police, who kept things from getting too far out of hand.

After they had gone, the crowd broke its silence to sing the French national anthem La Marseilleise.

Frankly, I would love to see an occasion where our sick 31, those governors who want to deny Syrian immigrants a chance to enter, get treated the same way as their cousin xenophobes were in Lille.

Sources cited in links:

228.4 - Outrage of the Week: using the Paris attacks to close the door to Syrian refugees

Outrage of the Week: using the Paris attacks to close the door to Syrian refugees

Now for one of our regular features. This is the Outrage of the Week.

I mentioned a few minutes ago the weaponization of grief. Closely related to that, of course, is the weaponization of fear. And we are seeing that in full bloom as well over half the nation's governors - 31 as of the time I'm preparing this, the night of November 17 - have called on the federal government to stop admitting Syrian refugees. Most of those governors, all but one of them GOppers, have promised to do everything in their power to prevent such refugees from being settled in their particular state.

While most of the states involved are from the traditionally so-called red states of the south and the plains, they do include even some blue states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey.

This is driven, it shouldn't be necessary to say, by plain old-fashioned bigoted xenophobia with a side order of specifically Islamophobia.

None of this anti-immigrant frothing arose now, of course, immigrants, even legal ones, have been a favorite punching bag of the right and the nativists for decade upon decade. But now there is a new claim, a new way to dog-whistle your rejection of immigrants, documented or otherwise, without admitting that's what you are doing:

Example of anti-immigrant cartoon
Every one of these governors cited the terrorist attacks in Paris. Every one of them warned darkly of terrorists sliding in among the immigrants to bring desolation to our shores. The argument for this is based essentially entirely on a Syrian passport found on or near one of the suicide bombers.

That passport was traced back to a crossing into Greece and proved to be either a copy or a forgery when police in Serbia arrested a man with a passport identical to the other in every way except for the photo.

So it certainly appears that the passport was a fake, which is not surprising considering the active trade in fake passports and other documents among people trying to get out of Syria. But this one, it appears on available evidence, was used by someone somehow connected to ISIS to get into France.

So why is the argument of the governors still such bullshit?

For one thing, the passport itself is a red flag. The migration correspondent for The Guardian said that "analysts find it strange that a bomber would remember to bring his passport on a mission, particularly one who does not intend to return alive." More pointedly, Charlie Winter, an analyst focusing on Islamist extremism, tweeted
Why would a jihadist who expressly rejects all notions of modern citizenship take his passport on a suicide mission? So it gets found.
Which makes real sense in the context of an observation by Iyad El-Baghdadi, an activist who keeps and reviews a private Twitter list of around 200-300 Jihadist accounts. He tweeted that:
You know what pissed off Islamist extremists the most about Europe? It was watching their very humane, moral response to the refugee crisis.
That is, the passport was used and brought to the scene of the attacks specifically so it would be found for the precise purpose of provoking exactly the reaction that our jackass governors have had: paranoia and suspicion about all Syrian refugees with the intent of driving a wedge between them and the West, to convince those trying to flee that there is nowhere to go, that the West will never accept them, that they have nowhere to go except the imaginary caliphate.

The heinous attacks in Paris had nothing to do with Syrian refugees. Not a damn thing.

The suspected "mastermind" behind the attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, is a French citizen. At least five of the eight suspected militants are French or Belgian nationals. Even French president Francois Hollande said the attacks had been "planned in Syria, organized in Belgium, perpetrated on our soil with French complicity."

As for the US resettlement program the governors are demanding be stopped, the Obama administration plans to admit just 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year as compared to the hundreds of thousands coming into Europe. What's more, those 10,000 will have to get through security screenings that typically take 18 to 24 months. And the resettlement program, which has been going on for about 40 years and has resettled more than 3 million people here, has never seen one of them commit a terrorist act.

These - I can't think of what to call them that is fit for air - these scumbags, these foul, ugly, venomous, toads occupying and defiling the governors' mansions of the nation, panderers to the bigotry of nativism, more interested in a self-serving soundbyte than in what is good in our nation's heritage, ready to throw the huddled masses yearning to breathe free back into the maelstrom of desperation and war rather than offend some right-wing donor, ready to feed our fears and muzzle our morality, they are contemptible. They are despicable. They are an outrage.

Sources cited in links:

228.3 - Considering the attacks in Paris

Considering the attacks in Paris

Okay, we have to talk about Paris.

On Friday, November 13, terrorists who appear to be connected to Daesh, or ISIS, killed 129 people and wounded hundreds more in a series of attacks involving suicide bombers and, more deadly, automatic weapons and explosives aimed at crowds of people at sidewalk cafes and at the Bataclan theater.

Daesh has claimed responsibility for the carnage, even though there remain questions about how much the plan was controlled from Syria as opposed to organized locally and so how much was ideologically rather than organizationally driven.

That distinction, of course, does not matter to the dead and wounded, nor does it matter to their families and friends. Nor should it. Nor should it, except as part of some overriding political calculation, matter to any of the rest of us.

What matters is the pain and the suffering and the blood and the death. More death. More blood. More suffering. More pain.

As always happens, as is natural to happen, the first question that arises is "why?" Why did this happen? And the answer to that question, an answer thought through to get past the simplistic, is important because it can direct us toward an answer to the bigger, more important, question: what now?

But the first thing to do, the very first, even if it's only for a short time, the first thing to do is mourn. To mourn and to condemn the attackers, who, no matter how many injustices real or imagined they may cite in their defense, are still responsible for their actions and they are still cowardly murders.

And then, after, we can ask why. There are, of course, lots of official officials and expert experts already making statements and sopping up ink and air time with answers that run the gamut from "they hate us" to "they are fanatics" and back again as if such a puny range represented thoughtful thought and analytical analysis.

Instead of speculating on why they hate us or dismissing the question with some version of "haters gonna hate," how about we ask them? Writing in The Nation recently, Lydia Wilson, field director at Artis International, which she described as a consortium for scientific study in the service of conflict resolution, described her experience of questioning ISIS members who had been taken prisoner:
Many [people] assume that these fighters are motivated by a belief in the Islamic State, a caliphate ruled by a caliph. ... But this just doesn't hold for the prisoners we are interviewing. They are woefully ignorant about Islam and have difficulty answering questions about Sharia law, militant jihad, and the caliphate. ...

There is no question that these prisoners I am interviewing are committed to Islam; it is just their own brand of Islam, only distantly related to that of the Islamic State. Similarly, Western fighters traveling to the Islamic State are also deeply committed, but it’s to their own idea of jihad rather than one based on sound theological arguments or even evidence from the Qur'an.
In other words, it is not a commitment to any radical Islam that drives them. That's a judgment seconded by Doug Stone, a retired American general who spent over two years in Iraq during the US occupation, interviewing prisoners on a daily basis. He said that 80 percent of the prisoners he interviewed had the same profile as the ISIS prisoners Wilson saw: men in their late 20s who had come to age during the US occupation of Iraq and had the same complaint, that the US invaded, threw out Saddam, and it lead to civil war, leaving them, as Sunnis, oppressed and abandoned.

These men now are not driven by the idea of an Islamic caliphate; rather, ISIS is now the one group that offers them a way to defend - or at least a way to feel they are defending - their dignity, their family, their tribe.

How may times have I said it? ISIS, Daesh, grew out of disaffected Sunnis who felt abandoned and then betrayed by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, a government that existed due to the United States. Maybe it's a step too far to say we created Daesh, but it's not too far to say we created the conditions in which it could take root and flourish.

And that points to the answer to the question "what now?" And the first, the most important, answer is what not to do: not to engage in what one writer pointedly called "the weaponization of grief," the turning of this crime into an excuse for other, additional, even greater crimes.

Beirut bombing
But of course, that's already what's happening, as French president Francois Hollande declares that France is now "at war" - as if France had not been bombing ISIS-held areas in Iraq and, more recently, Syria since last year. Old questions - what now - getting old answers: more bombs.

It won't work - that is, unless your goal is to, to slightly misquote Mark Twain, "drown the thunder of the bombs with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain," unless your goal is more senseless killing, more blood, more anger, more fury, more militants ready to die, ready to commit havoc on the innocent, ready for terror.

That new anger is already being generated by another event, just one day before the attacks in Paris: A pair of suicide bombers, who appear to have been sent by ISIS, blew themselves up in separate attacks in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. Forty-three people were killed, nearly 250 more wounded.

To the almost complete silence of the West. No Lebanese flags were flown, no cries of "We are all Lebanese now" streamed across social media, no buildings were lit in the red, white, and green of the Lebanese flag. Oh, it was reported, surely enough: For example, the New York Times carried one story. On page 6.

In response to the Paris attacks, the Times ran six stories the first day, three of them on the front page, two of them above the fold. There were 20 follow-up stories the next day, four of them on the front page. The day after that, there were 15 more follow-ups, again four of them on page 1. Forty-one stories in three days, 11 of them on the front page. One story on page 6 for Beirut.

Perhaps even more telling was the fact that in covering the terrorism in Paris, the Times headline was "Paris Terrorist Attacks Kill over 100." In covering the terrorism in Beirut, the single story on page 6 was initially headlined "Deadly Blasts Hit Hezbollah Area in Southern Beirut," later changed to "Hezbollah Stronghold." Hezbollah, as I expect you know, is regarded by the west as a terrorist group. Reuters, NPR, and MSNBC all joined in shouting "Hezbollah." This was despite the fact that the New York Times article itself says the neighborhood "typifies working-class Beirut, where Palestinians, Christians and Syrian refugees (mostly Sunnis) live, work and shop" and later calls it a "bustling area with narrow streets, many small shops and vendors selling fruits and vegetables from stalls and pushcarts."

Even Daesh, in claiming responsibility for the attacks, said the target was Shiite Muslims, who it views as apostates, and mentioned Hezbollah almost as an afterthought.

But no matter. Somehow, in the eyes of major western media, the presence of a Hezbollah office in the area made all those civilians disappear into a terrorist "stronghold." They became "other." Well, then, no wonder we couldn't be bothered to mourn them. Or even remember them, once someplace we think of as "us" was attacked.

Do you think people in the Middle East don't see that? You think they don't see that difference? You think they don't see that difference as demonstrating the West's indifference to what they live every day? You think that doesn't fuel anger, rage, fury?

How long can we keep making the same stupid mistakes? How long can we keep charging down the same blind alleys? How long can we tell ourselves that - Democrats' version - a little more bombing or - GOPpers' version - a lot more troops will do what bombing is failing to do in Syria, what 140,000 troops failed to do in Iraq, what 100,000 troops failed to do in Afghanistan?

We've got to find another way. We've got to take another way. It has been said, quite truthfully, that those who deal in vengeance tend to become that which they oppose. So we have got to stop imagining that vengeance, that "get them back" is the answer or even an answer. We have got to find the courage to say we will not be terrorized, we will not be afraid, we will not be intimidated, but we will not become what we oppose. We will not become, or, if I'm to be completely honest here, we will stop being, terrorists.

No, that won't be easy and no, it won't be safe. But the hard truth is that while you can kill terrorists, you can't kill terrorism, as the recent history of the Taliban to al-Qaeda to Daesh should have taught us but has yet to do so. Terrorism can't be killed and ultimately it can't be bombed or invaded into submission except at most temporarily. It can only be overcome by being dried up, desiccated to the point of, like Voldemort in the movie version, turning to dust and blowing away - and that requires not attacks but aid, not ultimatums but understanding, not bombs but bread; it requires, bottom line, justice. It requires acting with justice - and not the kind of "justice" that is just a code word for vengeance, for "get them back," for tit for tat, but true justice. It requires acting justly, even when it's not convenient, even when it's inconvenient.

The dead everywhere deserve no less of an honor.

Sources cited in links:

228.2 - Good News: Court says feds collecting URLs as metadata may be violating federal law

Good News: Court says feds collecting URLs as metadata may be violating federal law

So that's the Not Good News, what's the Good News?

The Good News is that in the same decision that let Google off the hook, the Court was careful to make another point: Courts have pretty consistently ruled that the government does not need a warrant to spy on and collect so-called "non-content" data, or the metadata, of our communications - they can record, for example, who made a phone call, who got a phone call, who sent an email, who got an email; but not the content of what was said or written.

But in its decision, the Third Circuit said that merely tracking the URLs someone visits can constitute collecting the contents of their communications, and that doing so without a warrant can violate the Wiretap Act.

As an example of how the would happen, Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute says that a visit to "" might count as metadata, but a visit to "" clearly reveals something about the visitor's communications beyond the simple fact of the visit itself, and that amounts to recording content, which requires a warrant.

And the real point here is that this declaration in the court's ruling, this finding that what's supposedly metadata can actually be content, the principle is across the board - meaning it will apply not just to Google, but to the Justice Department and the NSA and the rest of the spook-ocracy.

This is not completely new territory; the Department of Justice already states that it seeks a warrant when it collects URLs from a suspect's web history and the judges in the Google case cited a formerly secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ruling that also found that URLs could count as content as well as metadata.

But the DOJ's policy is just that: policy, not a legal requirement. And the FISA ruling was secret. This is public. Both of those differences matter.

Edward Snowden
In some ways, this finding may seem not particularly important since the whole idea of metadata being easily subject to surveillance may be going away. In fact, due to changes in the law driven by the revelations of Edward Snowden, who first brought the massing NSA spying on phone metadata to light, the program is supposed to end as of November 29. I say "supposed to" because the metadata will still be collected, it just will be held by the phone companies instead of the government and the government can still look at it, but it will have to meet a higher standard than at present to do so, at least to do so legally. So, it's better, but it's not really good and metadata being used by the government for surveillance is not going away.

But what matters right now is that while it may just be because that impending date of November 29 makes it seem politically safe, the decision in the Google case is one among some others that hint at an increasing willingness of the courts to challenge the spooks on their authority.

For one example, last May the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Patriot Act did not authorize the metadata collection program. The Court did not rule on its constitutionality, but it did find the program to be illegal.

More importantly, on November 9, US District Judge Richard Leon of the District of Columbia ruled that the NSA's entire metadata-collecting program is unconstitutional and ordered it stopped immediately, finding that the Constitutional violation involved was so egregious that even though it was supposedly going to end in a few weeks anyway it could not be allowed to stand another day.

Ellen Rosenblum
The ruling has a limited legal impact not only because of the time frame involved but also because, technically, it only applies to the two plaintiffs who brought the suit. But the principle involved - the finding of unconstitutionality - is important and will clearly survive the date of November 29. The ruling is significant precisely because courts so rarely challenge the spooks waving "national security" banners. David Greene, senior staff attorney and civil liberties director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says it could set a precedent for future cases involving spying on citizens and residents of the US because the NSA defends many of its programs by invoking the same sort of arguments that Judge Leon rejected. So while this is limited Good News, it is still Good News and it offers hope for bigger Good News in the future.

In a related matter, since it involves government spying on citizens, the att gen of OR, Ellen Rosenblum, has said she is "appalled" by the discovery that the state's Criminal Justice Division, which she supervises, had been tracking the Twitter feeds of a number of OR residents based solely on their use of certain hashtags, particularly that of #BlackLivesMatter.

Wile she gave no details on the scope of the digital surveillance, she did say she is investigating it and strongly suggested the practice was to stop. Which, again, is good news.

Sources cited in links:

Saturday, November 21, 2015

228.1 - Not Good News: Court says Google can evade non-tracking technologies in browsers

Not Good News: Court says Google can evade non-tracking technologies in browsers

We'll start, as we always like to, with some Good News, but this time it's a case of Good News being wrapped inside some Not Good News.

The Not Good News involves a long-running class action lawsuit against Google and two media firms, who were accused of circumventing cookie-blocking technologies in web browsers, thus enabling the sites to track users' web histories.

In a significant loss for online privacy, on November 9 the Third Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the suit, saying that, contrary to the plaintiffs' claims that Google and the others had violated the Wiretap Act, they in fact hadn't because they were a "party" to the communications rather than a third-party eavesdropper.

Which I find a bizarre decision, since it's the internet equivalent of saying that because I visit a store to shop for something, that store can properly secretly follow me everywhere else I go to shop even if I've made it clear I want them to stop doing that. This, I have to say, is Not Good News.

Sources cited in links:

Left Side of the Aisle #228

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of November 19-25, 2015

This week:

Not Good News: Court says Google can evade non-tracking technologies in browsers

Good News: Court says feds collecting URLs as metadata may be violating federal law

Considering the attacks in Paris

Outrage of the Week: using the Paris attacks to close the door to Syrian refugees

Footnote: Vigilers in French city of Lille drive away right-wing xenophobes

Monday, November 16, 2015

227.5 - Heroics: Soldiers are not heroes

Heroics: Soldiers are not heroes

This show is on the week following Veterans Day, so this seemed the right time to include my annual Veterans Day commentary. I have done this either on my blog or here - or both - for this will make it seven years now.

I gave up sometime back on worrying about how it will be taken. When I first did it, I tried various ways to start, wanting to make sure that I said what I meant and only what I meant. But I came to accept that there is no way that will not be misunderstood, either accidentally or, by some, deliberately. So I gave up trying to do anything other than say it outright. I regard it as an at least useful if not necessary counterpoint to the annual hyped praise of all things veteran, which too easily slides over into praise of all things military.

The thing is, November 11 has become so well-known as Veterans' Day that not many people remember that it was originally called Armistice Day. It was intended to commemorate those who died in World War I by an observation of the end of the war, which ended, at least on the Western front, on "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month." But after World War II, the US changed its day to Veterans' Day and over time it's become not a commemoration of those who have died in war and a call for peace but a celebration of anyone who's ever been in the military.

This actually originally arose, what originally prompted it the first time I did this, was that I was (and still am) deeply disturbed by the increasing tendency among "progressives" to adulate all things military, and particularly disturbed by the practice of referring to soldiers routinely as "our heroes" or some similar formulation.

The attitude still exists: Do a Google search on "soldiers our heroes" and you get something over 16 million hits. So let me be clear here: Soldiers are not "heroes." A "hero" is by definition someone who is in some way extraordinary, remarkable, worthy of emulation. It is at best a risky business to define someone as "extraordinary" simply by virtue of wearing a uniform - which is exactly what has happened: Instead of being, again, a commemoration of the dead and of peace, November 11 has become a celebration of all things military, rife with paeans to the "nobility of sacrifice" and to veterans as the "true patriots" - apparently the only true patriots, as they are given due unavailable to everyone else.

This is not only unfortunate, it is potentially dangerous as it makes it too easy to slip into the militaristic attitude that what soldiers do goes beyond "necessary evil" or just necessary, beyond even honorable, to admirable, to something to celebrate, an attitude that makes it all too easy to promote additional enlistments, additional weapons, and even additional wars.

A perhaps revealing example of that attitude came a couple of years ago during an interview with then-Senator and liberal hero of the month Jim Webb on "The Daily Show," the audience for which, both on-air and in-studio, has a well-known lefty tilt. Most of that interview was a discussion about Webb's bill to expand veteran educational benefits, under which, in return for three years in the military, soldiers would receive four years' tuition at their best state college plus the cost of books, plus a monthly stipend. At one point, when Webb said that the least we can do for our soldiers is give them the chance for "a first-class future," the audience burst into loud applause.

And I thought then, as I have since, would there be any chance, any chance at all, of that same sort of reaction if the same proposal was made on behalf of any other group? What if someone proposed paying for four years of college for, say, firefighters? Or cops? How about volunteers in VISTA (now AmeriCorps VISTA)? Or the Peace Corps? The latter two provide some educational benefits for those who put in their time, but nothing vaguely approaching four fully-paid years at their best state college.

What about publicly-funded continuing education for doctors and nurses? Such continuing education is not only a good idea for health care professionals, it's often a requirement for maintaining their licenses to practice. And certainly having doctors and nurses who are up to date on the best knowledge and practice is beneficial to the public. So why not have public financing of that continuing education?

And while it's true that the idea of tuition-free, taxpayer-supported public education up through four years of college for anyone who can show themselves capable of meeting the educational standards involved has entered the political arena, that doesn't change the fundamental argument here: Propose an educational plan for a "first-class future" for veterans, and everybody will cheer wildly while proposing it for others doesn't even chart - and proposing it for everyone gets mostly moans about "Gee, how can we afford it?"

So why only soldiers? What does it say about us that the idea of paying soldiers' way through college gets ovations while the idea of anyone else getting the same benefit gets at best quizzical stares if not overt sneering rejections?

What it says is that we regard the work of soldiering as inherently more important, inherently more deserving of praise and reward, than the work of others, no matter what contributions they make or have made to society. And it means we regard the lives of soldiers as inherently more valuable than the lives of the rest of us.

But if it was only things like veterans' benefits, it might not seem particularly important. I say that despite the fact that the amount of money involved in such benefits is not trivial, being something over $80 billion a year and the arguments for them often quite misleading: Many such benefits were instituted in the wake of World War II. The avowed purpose of those benefits was to make up for what those soldiers had lost in regard to their civilian careers as compared to those who had not been in the military. That is, they were to insure that soldiers did not wind up being penalized for having been soldiers. They were not intended to give soldiers a leg up over others (or "a first-class future") and they most definitely were not presented as being a reward for military service. But that's what they have become over the years and that's how we continue to treat them.

I also want to make abundantly clear in case it's not or is willfully ignored that what I'm questioning here is not the right of veterans to get any medical care, rehabilitation, and counseling they need as the result of being wounded either physically or psychologically and the military's practice of giving soldiers less-than-honorable discharges precisely to avoid providing them with benefits is morally reprehensible.

But, yes, veterans benefits are too generous to the extent that they become a reward for being in the military - such as, for example, veterans' preferences in civil service jobs are - and especially when they single out veterans for opportunities such as for higher education and housing that are becoming increasingly financially impossible for most of the rest of us.

Put another way, I do not object to or resent any veteran taking advantage of any benefits to which they are legally entitled: They are there to be used. If you're legally entitled to it, take it. But that is born of the general principle that I would advocate for the right of anyone to get any help which they truly need.

Put yet another way, I am opposed to soldiers getting benefits simply for having been soldiers when those benefits are not equally available to others with equal need and equal opportunity for personal advancement.

But even so, even again, if that's all there was to it, it still might not seem like a great big huge deal. But that's not all there is to it. The emotional embrace of soldiers as "our heroes," as some sort of disembodied ideal, has implications beyond the immediate ones, beyond questions of public support and access to programs and beyond as well the immediate experience of our recent and present wars. Because within that embrace, it becomes easy to absorb, absorb so deeply that one is unaware of it, the idea that a veteran's take on military matters - and by extension, all of foreign policy - is inherently more valuable than that of others not by virtue of knowledge or logic or informed comment but simply by virtue of being a veteran. We regarded it (correctly) as a scandal several years ago when media outlets used retired generals who were actually Pentagon-trained PR flacks as "experts" on military and foreign policy questions - but an overlooked point is that the reason retired generals were so prominent in that number was that their status as military people gave them added credibility in the eyes of many viewers and the ears of many listeners.

In our pursuit of "support the troops," we have fallen prey to that same attitude, one that regards the statements of war veterans as more valuable, more telling, than those of non-veterans. That is, we embrace the militarist, the Pentagon, view of world affairs simply because it is the Pentagon.

It even has become fairly common to hear dismissive references to those who "never saw combat." At first, that was a legitimate argument, because it was directed against those derided as chickenhawks, those rightwingers who were eager for fights, ready for wars, provided they did not have to take part in them. But increasingly it has been used as an all-purpose put-down, even against those on the left who have criticized soldiers - as, I imagine, it would be directed against me (a non-veteran and a Vietnam-era draft resister) were my voice loud enough to attract the attention.

Chelsea Manning
But the real danger is that as the attitude persists, it distorts our way of thinking, drops a magnet on our moral compass. I still recall with pain how during the Iraq war we dismissed, ignored, downplayed, the atrocities committed by US forces; how we refused to blame those who shot civilians even when the attacks were clearly acts of vengeance; how we downplayed the routine cruelties and closed our eyes to the evidence of war crimes; how we made excuses for those who shot the wounded or tortured prisoners; how even when an official Pentagon report casually mentioned how a US soldier summarily executed a wounded fighter and shot another wounded, unresisting fighter twice in the back, we paid little notice - and if we did, it was usually to brush off complaints with that all-purpose "you've never been in combat" defense. "These things happen in war," we said.

Yes, they do. And "our heroes" were doing them. Which was and is, even as the deniers seemed and still seem incapable of recognizing it, the point. We as a culture, as a society, as a people, wanted to give a blanket pass to all soldiers, to remove from them all their responsibility for their own actions. That is an idea we were supposed to have rejected nearly 70 years ago now; apparently, we haven't. Instead, we put our judgment not on those who commit the crimes but on those who tell us about them - such as Chelsea Manning, now spending 35 years in prison for having done precisely that.

Soldiers are not heroes. They can be heroes, they can become heroes, they can act heroically, they can do heroic things - but the act of putting on a uniform and agreeing to put your conscience in a lockbox for the next so many years does not make your life more important than others, it does not make your contributions more valuable than others, it does not make you more deserving of aid than others, it does not make your opinions and insights more worthy of respect than others, it does not exempt you from moral judgment.

It does not make you a hero.

And we should not fall prey to hero-worship.

Sources cited in links:

227.4 - Hero Award: 11-year-old Will Smith

Hero Award: 11-year-old Will Smith

So a quick Hero Award, which is something we give out here on occasion to recognize someone who just does the right thing on a matter big or small.

Our hero this time is a young one: 11-year-old Will Smith of Long Island City, NY.

Will is a devoted fan of the NY Mets - and particularly a fan of infielder Daniel Murphy.

Personally, I'm not a fan of Murphy, not after he declared last March that he is "100% against" the "homosexual lifestyle" but that's actually neither here not there right now.

What is here and there right now is that Will used $175 of his own birthday money to purchase a signed Daniel Murphy bat from Topps. When he ordered it, the bat was in stock online and he was even promised a delivery date.

But in the postseason, Murphy got real hot. He broke a record by hitting home runs in six consecutive postseason games, set a Mets franchise record for most homers in postseason, and became only the second person - Lou Gehrig being the other - to have a hit, a run, and an RBI in seven consecutive Major League postseason games.

Will Smith
Suddenly, the bat was unavailable. Topps cancelled the order, claiming it had run out of bats, and said it was processing a refund.

Will's father, suspecting as I did and do that Topps intended to raise the price of the bat because of Murphy's increased profile, told the story to the New York Daily News. Which published it.

And guess that, presto, the bat was not out of stock. Not only did Topps have a bat to send to Will, it also sent a refund.

Okay, so it's a cute story of a corporation getting shamed by some bad publicity into doing what it should have done in the first place. So why is Will a hero?

Because he took the $175 refund and donated it to the Jackie Robinson Foundation, a national, non-profit organization which gives scholarships to minority youths for higher education. Maybe it will remind Topps that there are more important things than its bottom line - but in any event, in my eyes it makes Will Smith a hero.

Sources cited in links:

227.3 - Outrage of the Week: SCOTUS makes it almost impossible to sue killer cops

Outrage of the Week: SCOTUS makes it almost impossible to sue killer cops

Now for our other regular feature, this is the Outrage of the Week.

And the source of this week's outrage has been the source of too much outrage over the time we've been doing this show: the US Supreme Court.

Let's run down the basic facts: On March 23, 2010, Israel Leija lead Texas police on an 18-minute chase at speeds up to 110 miles per hour after cops tried to serve him with an arrest warrant.

Clearly, police had cause to stop Leija, so they laid down road spikes at three locations he was predicted to pass. But at one location, beneath an overpass, state trooper Chadrin Mullenix showed up, having heard about events on his police radio. When it developed that Leija was coming that way, Mullenix decided his own strategy: He went up onto the overpass with a high-powered rifle, intending to shoot the car's engine block. He got into shooting position and waited.

As Leija's approached three minutes later, Mullenix fired six times. He didn't hit the engine once. However, he did hit Leija four times, killing him.

Chadrin Mullenix
Okay, here's some necessary fill: Mullenix not only had no training in shooting at a moving vehicle, he had never even seen it done. Mullenix asked his superior officer for permission to proceed with his plan, but was told to "stand by" and "see if the spikes work first." Mullenix claims he never heard that message, but even if that's true, it means he asked for permission and then went off without waiting for an answer.

The claim that he was protecting other officers is belied by the facts that the officers involved with the spike strips did have training on how to minimize the risk to themselves from the car hitting the spikes - which Mullenix would know - none of them had expressed any concern for their safety - which Mullenix would also know - and the timed gained, the time between when Mullenix shot Leija and when the car hit the spikes, was less than 3/4 of a second. And after the shooting, Mullenix's first words to his superior were "How's that for proactive?" That apparently had been an issue in an evaluation.

Leija's family sued Mullenix, claiming he had violated Leija's Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force. Mullenix claimed what's called "qualified immunity," under which cops and other government agents can't be held personally liable for damages unless their conduct violates "clearly established" statutory or constitutional rights.

The trial judge denied the claim, saying the case could go to a jury. A panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling. On re-hearing, the full Court did likewise.

Sonia Sotomayor
On November 9, the Supreme Court overturned that decision, letting Mullenix off the hook, saying that cops are immune from lawsuits unless it is "beyond debate" that a shooting was unjustified and clearly unreasonable.

Beyond debate! That is a standard higher than that required for a murder conviction in a criminal trial. But that, apparently, is what the Supreme Court thinks is a reasonable standard to hold a cop liable for killing someone, a standard which would make is essentially impossible to hold a cop civilly liable for shooting someone down.

What wrenches my gut more is that the decision was 8-1. Yes, Stephen Breyer was with the majority. Yes, Elena Kagen was with the majority. Yes, the latest liberal hero, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was with the majority.

The dissent, and it was a blistering one, came from Sonia Sotomayor, who lambasted the majority for both re-framing the issue and describing the facts in the ways most favorable to Mullenix even when that meant ignoring precedent.

Her conclusion deserves special recognition: Referring to Mullenix's "proactive" crack, she says that doesn't affect the legal reasoning, but, quoting now,
the comment seems to me revealing of the culture this Court's decision supports when it calls it reasonable - or even reasonably reasonable - to use deadly force for no discernible gain and over a supervisor's express order to "stand by." By sanctioning a "shoot first, think later" approach to policing, the Court renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment hollow.
At this point, I don't see why we don't just issue all cops double-0 badge numbers and be done with it. It truly is an outrage.

Sources cited in links:
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