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Assassination and the 14th Amendment

Drones and targeted killings are discussed on editorial pages every day. But has the discussion been as targeted as the killings? Our colleague Jack Slack doesn’t think so. Here’s his take on the way these issues are being talked about:

America’s use of drones is in the news nowadays. And when it comes to discussing those small, unmanned aircraft, the focus is often on the virtually inevitable killing of innocent civilians near the actual target — collateral damage, as it’s called. But in fact, drones are way down the list when it comes to collateral damage. Using cluster bombs or a single 2,000 pound bomb against the typical drone target would kill many more innocent civilians.

America’s policy of “targeted killings” — called “assassination” by its critics — is also in the news. Drones are used for many purposes, but their use for targeted killings in the Afghan border region of Pakistan and in Yemen has led to heated opinions on the editorial pages of newspapers. The discussion often centers on the permissibility of assassinating members of al Qaeda and/or any other terrorist group, and whether the president or upper echelon leadership have had a “proper” review of the decision before assassinating people,

The proper topic of discussion should be whether it is constitutional to assassinate anyone. In other words does the U.S. Constitution provide due process to “all persons” under its jurisdiction? Or is the right to due process (habeas corpus) guaranteed only to citizens of the United States?

Section 9  U.S. Constitution reads: “The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” That means when Rebellion or Invasion endangers public safety, then habeas can be suspended.   The U.S. Civil War was rebellion, terrorists are not invaders, nor revolutionaries. They are international criminals, not unlike the Mafia.

The 14th Amendment reads: …”No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The creators of the 14th Amendment were obviously well aware of the use of the words citizens and persons.

Aliens are entitled to constitutional protections. The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution apply to aliens residing within the United States. As such, the courts guarantee aliens the right to due process of law and equal protection of the laws. Courts have generally construed the Fourth Amendment as applicable to aliens as well.  If a person exists under U.S. jurisdiction he is entitled to constitutional protections weather he is a citizen, legal or illegal alien.

In 1798, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “Habeas Corpus secures every man here, alien or citizen, against everything which is not law, whatever shape it may assume.”

 —Jack Slack

April 19th, 1775

Minute Man in Concord

Minute Man in Concord

For people living in Massachusetts April 19th is more than the day of the Boston Marathon, it’s Patriots Day —  the day and date in 1775 when the British army, stationed in Boston, sent a force across the Charles River in the dark of night, planning a surprise march to Lexington to capture Samuel Adams and John Hancock, and from there to Concord to seize gunpowder and other supplies stored by the disaffected citizenry.

The rebellious farmers had established a militia, the Minute Men, and now aroused by the warnings of Paul Revere and William Dawes —  “The British are coming!”  —  the armed men gathered at dawn on the Lexington Common. The advancing British ordered them to disperse, the Minute Men refused, a shot was fired, the political revolution became an armed insurrection. John Hancock and Samuel Adams, half a mile away, escaped even as the firing of musketry on the Common began. But the locals were no match for the British Regulars who continued their march to Concord where another group of Minute Men had gathered on a rise overlooking at a bridge over the Concord River. The British occupied the town center and left a small detachment to guard the bridge while others searched for the rebels’ military supplies. The Minute Men, seeing smoke rising from town, thought the British had set fires, so they marched down to the bridge and to engage and overwhelm the outnumbered British troops.

Here’s a stanza from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s elegiac commemorative poem written for the monument erected by the bridge:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

As the British Redcoats marched back to Boston they were harassed continuously by the Minute Men. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wonderful narrative poem, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” contains these lines about those events:

You know the rest. In the books you have read,
How the British Regulars fired and fled, —
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farm-yard wall,
Chasing the red-coats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

In Concord, inscribed over the grave of two British soldiers who were killed in the Concord skirmish, is a stanza of a poem called “Lines” by James Russell Lowell:

They came three-thousand miles and died
To keep the past upon its throne
Unheard beyond the ocean tide
Their English mother made her moan.

(If you’re interested in poetry, we can recommend the elegy by Emerson, and we do enjoy the stirring poem by Longfellow, but we’re happy to avoid Lowell’s knotted and at times incomprehensible verses.)

Nowadays, April 19th is celebrated on the third Monday in April. In Lexington, early in the morning of every 19th of April, no matter when it’s celebrated, the Minute Men gather on the Green under the leadership of Captain John Parker, and the Red Coats come marching in neat rows under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith. The armed farmers are told to disperse, but they refuse. A shot is fired, then a fusillade of British musketry, and when the smoke clears, some of the Minute Men have fallen, and the British regulars continue their March toward Concord.

Easter and Rebirth

Quem Quaeritis manuscript

Quem Quaeritis mss from Bodleian Library

Scripture tells of the resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion, the day we call Easter. And the celebration of Easter in the church gave birth to, or resurrected, theatrical drama in the western world. Drama as a living art had perished with the collapse and break up of the Christianized Roman Empire. But at an Easter service which took place in the decades shortly before the year 1000 the people in charge devised a very brief skit to dramatize the events of that third day. After the execution of Jesus, when “the three Marys” went to the tomb to anoint the body, they found an angel seated on the edge of the tomb. The little drama, enacted by church singers, went like this —

[Angeli]: Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae?
Responsio: Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae.
Angeli: Non est hic; surrexit, sicut praedixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro.

Or in English —

Angels: Whom do you seek in the tomb, O followers of Christ?
Response: The crucified Jesus of Nazareth, O heavenly beings.
Angels: He isn’t here; he’s risen, as he foretold. Go and announce that he has risen from the tomb.

From this slight beginning, drama was reborn.

Nos-tal-gia [fr. Gk nostos + algia]

It turns out that the word nostalgia means homesickness. I guess some of us weren’t in class the day the teacher talked about nostalgia. Some of us thought the word referred to that feeling of pleasure, tinged with gentle melancholy, that can arise when you think of something that had been familiar and meaningful to you in the past.

As it happens, we were wrong. All of us around here were wrong. The word was composed in the 17th century to describe a malady, severe homesickness, which was first noticed in Swiss mercenaries. Those Swiss mercenaries were sent all over Europe and, no surprise, they got homesick, extremely homesick. The word incorporates two Greek words, (nóstos), meaning a return home, and (álgos), meaning pain or ache.  When it comes to making new words, the obscurantist medical profession gets out the Greek and Latin dictionaries.

We looked up nostalgia in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Fifth Edition. (That’s a classic edition.) Yup, there it was. The total definition is one solitary word: homesickness. That edition was based on the famous Second Edition of Webster’s New Internatinal Dictionary which was copyrighted in 1934, so we turned to a more up-to-date volume, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, which was copyrighted in 1989. The number 1 definition was still homesickness.

But there was also definition number 2:  “a wistful or excessively sentimental sometimes abnormal yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” Have you got that?  OK, we’ve already admitted  not being in class the day our teacher discussed nostalgia, but I’m sure neither Miss Hammerstone nor Miss Bundelmom would ever speak so strangely.

I don’t know if looking at some old tie-dyed T-shirts and torn blue-jeans would give you a wistful or excessively sentimental sometimes abnormal yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition. On the other hand, if you’re in Rome and visit Vatican City and you see one of the Pope’s Swiss guards looking rather sickish, you can say, Ah, nostalgia!

Swiss Guards  at St. Peter's

Swiss Guards. Some may suffer from acute nostalgia.


Debtors’ Prison & Ye Austerity Plan

Outside a Debtors' Prison in England

Outside a Debtors' Prison in England

You’ve probably heard of debtors’ prison, a prison where people who hadn’t paid their debts could be kept under lock and key until they paid their debt or got somebody else to pay for them. It was a dreadful system. Charles Dickens, whose father was housed in a debtors’ prison for a while, wrote eloquently about it.

We had similar prisons in this country until around 1831 when the United States government abolished imprisonment for debts owed to the federal government, and most states soon dropped the practice too. To imprison somebody for failing to pay a debt is fundamentally crazy – OK, let’s say it’s just fundamentally counterproductive – because it deprives the debtor of the ability to earn the money to pay off his or her debts.

What brings debtors’ prisons to mind in these paragraphs is the way debtor nations are treated these days. It’s called austerity. It’s equally counterproductive – or, in a simpler word, crazy.

A good example of the craziness is what’s happening to Greece. Greece has got some big, bad debts and hasn’t got the money to pay them. Now the grand institutions that can loan Greece money aren’t throwing the nation into debtor’s prison. But they are demanding ball-and-chain austerity. They won’t loan Greece anymore money unless that nation continues to fire thousands of state workers, cut the wages of thousands and thousands of others, drastically reduce workers’ benefits and slash their pensions.  Of course, when you do that to a nation, the entire economy declines, more and more people loose their jobs or have to take dramatic pay cuts. That’s what’s happening in Greece today.

As every taxpayer knows, the way a nation gets money to pay its debts is by taxing its citizens, the ones who are actually making money. But when the economy sinks and people earn much less or nothing at all, the tax revenue plunges. In other words, as the institutions that loan money to Greece insist on these austerity programs, the Greeks are less and less able to pay off their debts.

Republicans, who haven’t shown a deep grasp of economics over the past 100 years, are eager to have the United States immediately “put its fiscal house in order” and “cut the deficit.” This means slashing government payrolls and cutting or eliminating government programs – except those for sacred national defense, of course. But because we have a Democrat in the White House and because Democrats control Senate, Republican suitors haven’t been able to completely have their way with the economy.

Interestingly, the conservatives did win big in England and they immediately imposed an austerity budget on their fellow subjects. They believe it’s imperative that England immediately “put its fiscal house in order” and “cut the deficit.” As a result, the country has slid down and backward economically. But England, despite its grim stagnation, isn’t in the desperate situation that Greece is in. Greece is in the new version of debtors’ prison.



Atomic Theory In 50 B.C.

De Rerum Natura 1675Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2011, and at the same time brought popular attention to another book, the two-thousand-year-old On the Nature of Things by Lucretius.  Greenblatt’s book is an engaging account of Poggio Bracciolini’s discovery of one of the few surviving copies of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius’ philosophical poem, and that discovery,  at least in  Greenblatt’s view, altered the course of intellectual history in Europe and “made the world modern.”

To the contemporary reader, the most astonishing thing about Lucretius’ philosophy is that it is based on an atomic theory of physics. Certainly it’s a marvel that a Roman poet writing around 50 B.C.  should understand the natural physical world as being the result of atomic interactions, but Lucretius was a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, himself an inheritor of the atomic theories of Leucippus and Democritus, all of them believers that the basic unit of the material world was the atom —  meaning “un-cutable” in Greek.

Whereas our contemporary atomic theory is based on experimental evidence, the Greek and Roman philosophers arrived at their theories entirely through reason and speculation.  Seeing the world as composed of complex structures built up by aggregates of simpler elements (look around you; you’ll see the same)  those thinkers worked down to a theoretical solitary building block  and down below that to nothingness.  That’s where Lucretius begins: there’s the void and atoms falling endlessly through it, occasionally swerving to hit other atoms, and over time those atoms hook together to build up the material world we live in. Furthermore, says Lucretius, the void is so large and atoms so numerous that other worlds have also arisen, many other worlds, in addition to our own.

And that is all there is to life, to this world, to the cosmos, to anything. Lucretius’s materialistic vision was intended, he wrote, to rescue people from belief in the intervention of gods and the fear of death. Gods exist in De Rerum Natura, but they exist off at some distance, rather diaphanous beings, with no interest in the world they didn’t create and the humans who inhabit it. As for death, don’t fear an after life, says Lucretius; you are only your constituent atoms and death merely frees those atoms to regroup, perhaps, in some other form. Not everyone will find freedom from fear or any comfort  in Lucretius.

De Rerum Natura is a long, long poem of some 7,400 lines. Even though it’s apparently unfinished, Lucretius gets around to explaining everything from how sound manages to get through walls to how it is that adolescent boys have wet dreams. Nothing is beyond his interest, from the grandest, such as the evolutions of human society, to the smallest, the infinitesimal wearing down of a statue by the touch of innumerable hands.  Lucretius himself comes through the lines as a man interested in just about everything, a man who apparently loved the things of this world and loved writing about them. The work is, after all, a vivid digressive poem about this world.

Teachers of Latin and their more advanced students are well aware of Lucretius’s book – six books as Lucretius assembles it — and they’re also aware that much of it is difficult Latin. If you had Latin in high school only, you’ll find Lucretius somewhere between exceedingly difficult and impossible. Say Catullus is easy and Ovid is easy, admit Quintillian is not easy and Horace is hard. If so, Lucretius is hard. Happily, there are translations.

Unhappily, translations of Latin poems aren’t wonderful. Yes, Arthur Golding’s translation in 1567 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is admired and is probably the best translation of that work, even after four centuries, but we nowadays read it not to get a sense of Ovid but to relish the wonderful rush and verve of the brash translator’s Renaissance English, a marvelous vulgate.

The Nature of Things by Lucretius, trans by A.E. StallingsThe most recent translation of Lucretius’s hexameters is by A. E. Stallings and she, like Golding, uses “fourteeners” — lines of fourteen syllables, usually seven iambics — linked in couplets. Indeed, her translation gives De Rerum Natura a certain liveliness and bounce – and possibly a classicist finds the same spirited animation in the original.  None of us here at Critical Pages can read Latin like a classicist, but maybe you guessed that already.  We favor the Loeb edition  of De Rerum Natura  published by Harvard University Press with the Latin on the left-hand page and the plain English on the right. But we admire A. (Alicia) E. Stallings translation. She’s a remarkable poet all on her own, as her many prizes attest.

[The original posting of this article had a number of typographical and spelling errors for which we apologize.]

New Year’s Day & Calendars

New Year's postcard from 1910

The illustration above is a postcard from 1910. Often the Old Year is represented by a thin old man with a long beard, an hour glass  in his hand and a scythe over his shoulder, and the New Year appears as a baby or a toddler wearing no more than a banner inscribed with the numerals of the new year.  In those illustrations the Old Year looks a lot like Death himself, especially with that scythe. So the picture above is a refreshing change, even if it is from 1910.  The Old Year doesn’t look decrepit. In fact he seems to be a rather randy old guy gazing fondly at Miss New Year who is certainly no baby or toddler. He doesn’t realize that he’s out, he’s finished, he’s over with.  And, of course, young Miss New Year doesn’t know how fast she’s going to age over the next 365 days.

Here we are at the start of a new year. So this post is about calendars, and it’s gong to be a rather rambling story. And a bit longer than most posts. Deciding what day to choose as the start of a new year is up to us, of course. We can choose whatever day we want. But it’s really very, very useful if everyone agrees on whatever day is chosen, because that way we all know what day we’re talking about when we say we’ll meet on the 15th.  Of course, people being as they are, not everyone agrees on which day is the first, or which day is the first of the spring season or whose calendar is most sanctified.

On the other hand, the length of a year isn’t decided by us. We don’t get to choose the time it takes the earth to make a trip around the sun. For virtually all of human history no one knew that the earth was circling the sun, but people did notice that in addition to it’s daily trip from one side of the sky to the other, the sun made a much slower trip back and forth across that daily horizon-to-horizon path — or as we think of it, a slow trip north and south. And that slow journey brought summer as the sun approached overhead and the days grew longer, and winter came as the sun withdrew from overhead and the days grew shorter. That was a year, and for most of human history a year was the longest stretch of time the heavens gave us.

Another way our early ancestors marked time was by the moon, the twenty-eight days it takes to complete a cycle of waxing and waning. The moon is a most convenient clock. You can see that it’s grown or diminished every night and, depending on which way the crescent points, you can tell if it’s waxing or waning. And twenty-eight days is a length of time much easier to work and plan with than 365 days. The fact that women tend to have a menstrual cycle of 28 days made lunar cycles even more important. We at Critical Pages don’t have any theories about the similar periodicity of lunar cycles and menstrual cycles, or the nature of women.

(By the way, the Latin word for month is mensis, and the Latin for monthly is menstrualis. More cool facts with which to impress your friends who never studied Latin.) But to get back to the moon and solar calendar — there’s a little math problem here: the 28 days that make up a lunar month don’t fit neatly into the 365 days that compose a solar year. Thirteen lunar months gives us 364 days. (more…)

It’s the Season for Eggnog

EggnogEvery year about this time our thoughts turn to eggnog. (We think of a lot of other things, of course, but eggnog also comes to mind.)  Eggnog is a winter drink and a lot of people drink it cold. We suggest you try it hot. It’s made with eggs, plus milk or cream (or both), sweetened with sugar and flavored with cinnamon or nutmeg. And, of course, you can add alcohol. In fact, although most places that sell milk also sell non-alcoholic eggnog, the alcoholic versions are the originals.

Eggnog seems to have been concocted first by the British, though that’s not an established fact. In any case, it was an upper-class drink because poor folk — the great majority of the population then, as now —  couldn’t afford milk or eggs, much less sugar. Settlers from England carried it to the American colonies in the 18th century and here it became a drink democratically enjoyed by the great majority. Wealth was more evenly spread in this country and colonial farmers had a far better life than their English counterparts. British troops sent here to quell the revolutionaries were astonished by the large productive farms owned by ordinary citizens and couldn’t understand why these well-off colonials were in such an uproar against the king.

In the colonies rum was mixed in with the eggs and cream and the whole was heated before being downed. (One derivation for the word eggnog has it beginning as egg-and-grog. Maybe, maybe not.) Later, during the war for independence, rum was hard to come by and colonial bourbon was used as a substitute. And, as it happens, many American recipes specify bourbon.

You might want to look at a few eggnog recipes before trying to invent one. There’s a web site called eggnogrecipe.net and we think that’s a good place to start. We haven’t been able to track down the source of the eggnog photo up there.  But we did find a bottle of Evan Williams Egg Nog — the label says since 1783. The label also says Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Blended Whiskey. Rum and Brandy. We’ll be drinking that and doing research on it, so we can report back to you in a good frame of mind sometime after New Year’s Day.

Was It Worth It?

Flag of the United StatesOn December 15, 2011, the United States formally ended military operations in Iraq. After almost nine years this nation was able to extricate itself from a war in which over 1.5 million American served, 30,000 were wounded, and 4,500 died. Of the Iraqi population, military and civilian, it’s estimated that over 100,000 died, and no one knows how many hundreds of thousands were wounded. As for the ultimate financial cost to the US, it’s been commonly estimated as around $1 trillion, and that’s the figure used by the New York Times.  Others believe that it’s complete cost is actually around $3 trillion. (Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, has calculated the cost — check it out, if you wish.)

The fantasy of a quick and easy war was confected by President George W. Bush and his Vice President Richard Cheney along with a group of civilian neo-conservatives who had never experienced combat, but who wanted to throw their ideological weight around. Inebriated by this country’s overwhelming military power, they had dreams of establishing a “beacon of freedom” which would magically lead other Middle Eastern countries to democracy and a commitment to free market economics.

The Iraqi military machine had been reduced to near impotence by our previous invasion and was no threat to us. Indeed, we controlled Iraq’s air space, flew missions over Iraq daily and destroyed any anti-aircraft facility that touched our aircraft with targeting radar. This was not a justifiable pre-emptive war — that’s when you strike before an immediately threatening enemy can strike at you. No, this was an optional war,  a phrase as horrible as it is bizarre.

Despite what our vice president told us, there was no dancing in Iraq’s streets when we overthrew that nation’s despotic regime, and Iraqis didn’t greet us as liberators. Nor did Iraq’s oil revenue pay for our war, as the vice president had promised. On the contrary, we kept on paying and paying and paying to rebuild the Iraq we had destroyed. Very soon we were regarded as occupiers. When we handed their country back to them on December 15 they didn’t say thank you. That was the same December 15 when we learned from our census bureau that half the people in the United States now live in poverty or are barely getting by on earnings that are classified as “low income.” All that blood and all that treasure — No, it wasn’t worth it.

The Puritans Arrive at Plimouth

MayflowerThe best text we can find in regard to the Thanksgiving season is this perhaps familiar one written by Governor William Bradford in his history, Of Plimouth Plantation. The Puritans, or Pilgrims as they’re often called,  had a very hard time after reaching these shores.  Bradford’s wife Dorothy died while the Mayflower was at anchor in Provincetown Harbor, and by the end of the first winter half the colonists had perished. It was a season of death. William Bradford’s account, though written simply and intended merely as a record, reaches a spare beauty, the same beauty that we find in the Puritans’ plain, sparsely furnished meeting houses and churches.  Here is an excerpt describing their plight as they set foot in this land. The spelling follows the original.

But hear I cannot but stay and make a pause, and stand half amased at this poore peoples presente condition; and so I thinke will the reader too, when he well considera the same. Being thus passed ye vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembred by yt which wente before), they had now no freinds to wellcome them, nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repaire too, to seeke for succoure. It is recorded in scripture as a mercie to ye apostle & his shipwraked company, yt the barbarians shewed them no smale kindnes in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians, when they mette with them (as after will appeare) were readier to fill their sids full of arrows then otherwise. And for ye season it was winter, and they that know ye winters of yt cuntrie know them to be sharp & violent, & subjecte to cruell & feirce stormes, deangerous to travill to known places, much more to serch an unknown coast. Besids, what could they see but a hidious & desolate wildernes, full of wild beasts & willd men? and what multituds ther might be of them they knew not. Nether could they, as it were, goe up to ye tope of Pisgah, to vew from this willdernes a more goodly cuntrie to feed their hops; for which way soever they turnd their eys (save upward to ye heavens) they could have litle solace or content in respecte of any outward objects. For sumer being done, all things stand upon them with a wetherbeaten face; and ye whole countrie, full of woods & thickets, represented a wild & savage heiw. If they looked behind them, ther was ye mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a maine barr & goulfe to seperate them from all ye civill parts of ye world.

The painting of the Mayflower that we’ve posted above is an imaginative work by the 19th century painter William Halsall.  The painting is evocative, but wholly inaccurate.  The Mayflower was a frighteningly small ship about half the size of the grand vessel portrayed here.  To get a sense of how small it was, you might visit Plimouth Plantation  in Massachusetts and go aboard the replica of the  Mayflower that rides at anchor there. The image below is the opening page of William Bradford’s Of Plimouth Plantation as written by is own hand. Plimouth Plantation by William BradfordOnce you gain familiarity with the old script, its spelling and its scribal patterns (“ye” is written with the e placed above the y, and the letters I and J are written alike)  you’ll be able to read Plimouth Plantation And first of the occasion and inducements thereunto; the which that I may truly unfould, I must begine at the very roote and rise of the same. The which I shall endevor to manefest in a plaine stile, with singuler regard unto the simple trueth in all things, at least as near as my slender judgmente can attaine the same.

More Notes

Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.