Government Support of Rugged Individualism

VillaUncleSamBerrymanCartoonMy recent review of The Oregon Trail couldn’t cover everything – it’s a long and interesting book. But I found this fascinating:

With reference to the Pacific Wagon Road Act of 1857, author Rinker Buck notes that “among other improvements to the trail… [it] became one of the largest government-financed projects of the nineteenth century… This model of government support for a major development project became popular and was accepted as the new norm. Each new phase of frontier growth… was also supported by either outright government subsidies, land giveaways, or federally supported irrigation and bridge-building projects. That was the tradition established by the Oregon Trail and it has always amused me that the myth of ‘rugged individualism’ still plays such a large role in western folklore and American values. In fact, our vaulted rugged individualism was financed by huge government largess.”

I’m no historian, but that resonates for me.

Certainly in my own home area of southwest New Mexico, the federal government conquered Native American and Mexican lands to allow Anglo Americans to move in – perhaps not the history we most wish to brag about. But denying the role of government is simply silly.

We New Mexicans try to come to terms with some of our history – the American town of Columbus recently “celebrated” Pancho Villa’s raid 100 years ago with its Mexican neighbor-town of Palomas. Maybe “celebrated” is wrong because people died – “commemorated”, perhaps – or just found a good reason for a street fair. In 1916, the United States invaded another country to protect its citizens! But today we all remember a freedom fighter for Mexico and our ties across the boarder. BTW – Do you know that American school buses pick up American-born children in Columbus and transport them to Deming every school-day?

When traveling to Palmoas for cheaper drugs or eye-care or dentistry, I always have lunch in Mexico at the Pink Store. If you ever get down here, I recommend it.

Celebrate the rugged pioneers, taciturn cowboys, and self-reliant ranchers – they were all of those things – but remember that without government support, the American West would be a very different place. That’s still true today.

Inside the Nazi War Machine

nazi-war-machineThis book by Bevin Alexander has a subtitle, “How Three Generals Unleashed Blitzkrieg Upon the World,” and is an excellent book for people interested in military history. The three generals were Erich von Manstein, Heinz Guderian, and Erwin Rommel, and they developed a military strategy that opposed that of the German high command and Hitler. My simplistic summary is that they refused to fight battles on a wide front. They led with concentrated panzer attacks against the widely-spread “penny packets” of French tanks. They almost always outpaced the infantry divisions that followed. They refused to slow the assault to allow consolidation of the flanks, which the high command believed would be vulnerable to counterattack. The conventional thinking was that the French army, which was “…the most formidable and best-equipped army in Europe…” with their British, Holland, and Belgian allies would pinch in from the sides and capture the tanks and soldiers in the deep penetration. The remarkable outcome was that the massive French army mostly just surrendered at the shock of how quickly the center of their front had been destroyed by Nazi fire power. The Luftwaffe supported the attacks with old and slow Stuka dive bombers that could precisely target French tanks or other forces that stood in the way. Static warfare that had been the norm throughout World War I was replaced by “maneuver warfare,” or Blitzkrieg.

The book portrays how the German generals continually successfully implemented their concentrated assaults and refused to acknowledge orders from the high command to stop and allow the supporting troops to catch up. Overall military organization is also described as being valuable to the Germans and paralyzing to the French. German commanders believed they should lead from the front where they could quickly recognize situations presented by opposing forces and terrain and make immediate adjustments. French units couldn’t deviate from existing orders without written orders, which often took days to be prepared and delivered. The German commanders also had the admiration and support of their soldiers, which resulted in achieving sometimes incredible results. Rommel was said to insist on being in the first vehicle going forward in an assault. Once he insisted on standing on the middle of a bridge important to a planned attack that was under bombardment by British bombers. He wanted it known how valuable the bridge was to German plans and risked his life to demonstrate it. Continue reading

Westward Migration – History and Recreation of Traveling the Oregon Trail

oregon trailThe Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck offers three travel tales braided together. There is the westward migration of Americans starting around 1840; the tale of Buck’s own crossing of the old trail with a mule team and wagon; and memories of his father’s horse and mule, wagon and carriage adventures – and unresolved father issues.

Buck decided to make “an authentic crossing of the Oregon Trail.” In preparation he read many travel diaries and historical accounts. The trail “has been meticulously charted and marked, with long, undeveloped spaces now preserved as a National Historic Trail” but also crossing private land. I was surprised to learn that, “except for two bad stretched of suburban sprawl,” the trail is generally accessible, especially since much of the way is now farm and ranch roads or even paved highways.

Early in the book Buck presents a lengthy story of the brother who accompanied him. The brothers woes of unemployment after the Republican Recession of 2008 and temporary crippling in a building accident segues into the 1840s and 1850s, when “families were disrupted and lives destroyed by the financial panics and bank failures that recurred every decade” further aggravated by “religious squabbling and labor strife” and the political issue of slavery. Migration west became “a safety valve that prevented a calamitous society from imploding.”

Pioneer knowledge has been lost
Buck recounts his efforts to obtain a wagon and mule team – somewhat hard to do since no one does this sort of trip anymore. He’s lucky to have his childhood familiarity with livestock and Amish and Mennonite friends who use horses for farming.

But horses aren’t suited to a long hard trip. Draft horses of the 1800s were “agrarian mastodons” while mules were smarter, tougher, and “the common phrase ‘stubborn as a mule,’ [is] a classic example of a man ascribing stupidity to the beast instead of to himself.”

Buck provides a lot of information about mules. “No less a figure than George Washington was America’s original maharajah of mules… [students don’t know] that the father of their country worked the same day job as Donald Trump. Washington was a land developer.”

I enjoyed this part of Washington’s life, which I hadn’t read about before. Europeans viewed Washington as a hero for defeating the despised British, so in 1785 the king of Spain sent him donkeys as breeding stock for working mules. I’ve met little burro donkeys with backs a bit higher than my waist and big riding donkeys – so different – so I found the descriptions delightful.

Buck also shares his efforts to recreate a suitable wagon, and even diagrams of the triple-tree design for hitching a three-mule team to a wagon. I didn’t know that the term “Conestoga” refers to an eastern cargo wagon that played almost in role in the western migration, or that the first factory assembly line produced wagons, not Ford cars. There’s even a side trip through how building the famous eastern canal system helped evolve a practical wagon.

After a hundred pages, the journey west begins
There’s a lot of information from trail diaries on the trip west. Runaway teams, disease, and hunting accidents caused frequent injury and death. Bridges are a special hazard for mules, which “can get a third of the way across… look sideways… panic… and overturn the wagon or crash into cars in an attempt to escape.” Covered bridges prevented this by blocking the animals view – and I thought they were just pretty! Buck includes a story of his father getting a terrified team across a bridge with his kids help.

RVs are a special hazard for Buck. They would often drive slowly very close to the mules to take pictures or drive ahead to stop, nearly blocking the road, to take more pictures as Buck drove by. He calls RVer men who wanted to make jokes about the wagon as “himbos,” as a play on “bimbos.”

An amazing woman pioneer
The westward migration was a huge change from fur traders and “backwoodsmen like Daniel Boone [who] could disappear into the great forests for months alone. Carrying just a small haversack, a musket, and a long knife.” But in 1836 there was “enormous prejudice against” white women going west with their husbands. This led into a wonderful tale of Narcissa Prentis, the firs white woman to cross the Rockies. She married a fellow missionary – apparently for the convenience of both – and sent installments of her diary back east with various fur traders they encountered who were headed that way. (People seemed to take the burden of delivering letters very seriously.)

Continue reading

In a Nutshell

The phrase means something is concise, or reveals its core or essence in a short incident or event. Phrase Finder says Pliny the Elder used the phrase in Natural History in AD 77. As translated into English in 1601 by Philemon Holland, Pliny says a copy of Homer’s poem the Iliad was written on parchment and “enclosed within a nutshell.” A rather ridiculous idea since the poem runs hundreds of modern pages, and parchment – animal skin – would be hard to fold. But whether Pliny believed such a thing existed or not, here the phrase seems to mean something that is very small, not concise.

Shakespeare, who often took themes from the classics, alluded to the ‘something compact’ idea of ‘nutshell’ when he gave Hamlet the line:

“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

The figurative use of ‘in a nutshell’ to mean specifically ‘in few concise words’ didn’t emerge until the 19th century. Thackeray used it in print in The Second Funeral of Napoleon, 1841:

“Here, then, in a nutshell, you have the whole matter.”

SayWhy picks up on Pliny the Elder, and Wikipedia refers to Shakespeare, but I think Phrase Finder has the best explanation – an origin to the modern meaning.

Thank You Charles Dickens

For this week’s expression I’m working backwards – on words.
We know the origin of these terms – the works of Charles Dickens.

“It’s a sign of an author’s genius when his characters step out of the stories and become words in the language. Dozens of Dickens’s characters are now part of the English language.”

Wellerism: Dickens’s novel Pickwick Papers. Earliest documented use: 1839. A familiar phrase followed by a humorous invention. “Prevention is better than cure,” said the pig when it ran away from the butcher.
Fagin: From Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist. Earliest documented use: 1847. One who trains others, especially children, in crime. A fagin crook led a gang of young thieves.
Gamp: From Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit. Earliest documented use: 1864. A large umbrella. “By the time we fumble with our gamps, the air is dry once again.”
Scrooge: This is the only one I’ve ever used, and it took a while to enter the language. From Dickens’s novel A Christmas Carol. Earliest documented use: 1940. A miser. “He was not entirely a Scrooge. There were times when he secretly helped poor people.”
Thanks to

America’s First War With Islam

Thomas Jefferson Tripoli PiratesBrain Kilmeade, of Fox News, working with Don Yaeger who receives co-author credit in a much smaller font and may be responsible for the large number of primary sources listed in the Notes, wrote this book about America’s first war as a nation to feature the “relatively unknown, unsung patriots” who fought and died to makes our famous founding fathers’ vision come true.

I’m glad I picked up the book and will, therefore, forgive him for using one of the most famous of those founding fathers in the title: Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, the Forgotten War that Changed American History.

From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli…
Hymn of the US Marines

Around 1800, Tripoli (known today as Libya) was the most aggressive of the nations on the North African Barbary Coast: Morocco, Algeria, Tripoli, and part of Egypt, nations beholden to the Ottoman Empire. These nations, each with its own an absolute ruler, controlled the Mediterranean Sea and extended their reach into the Atlantic Ocean. They extorted protection money from nations trading in the Mediterranean, and mostly received whatever they demanded, even from powerful nations like Britain and France (which persisted in fighting each other through the period.) Ships not under the rulers’ protection were routinely captured by “pirates” working for these nations, their crews enslaved, and vast ransoms demanded. It was “a centuries-old practice of building economies around kidnappings, theft, and terror.”

US ships were easy targets
The newly formed United States, untried in the region, found “its status was lowly indeed,” but needed the economic boost from trade. At first, the US paid “tribute” like other nations did, but didn’t have the credit-rating to raise the increasing sums demanded and was still deep in debt from the Revolution. Eventually, the US fought the Barbary nations – especially Tripoli – and won the right to free passage in international waters.

I chose to title this review as a war with Islam, which is a bit hyperbolic.

  • At one point a Tripoli diplomat explained that “all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave.”
  • Later, however, when America supported an exiled prince against his brother who ruled Tripoli (regime change as a tactic is not new) the US emissary “touched upon the affinity of principle between the Islam and American religion. Both taught the existence…of one God… both enjoyed the universal exercise of humanity, and both forbade unnecessary bloodshed… the viceroy had to agree: indeed these were the maxims of his faith.”

Forgive my cynicism, but those seeking wealth and power seem to use religion when it suits their purpose. Continue reading

Islam’s Golden Age of Science

House of WisdomJonathan Lyons’ book House of Wisdom is about the most splendid period for science in Islamic – and particularly the Arab Islamic – history. This corresponded with Europe’s Dark Ages when a “great struggle between faith and reason was about to come crashing down on an unsuspecting Europe.”

The arrival of Arab science and philosophy “transmuted the backward West into a scientific and technological superpower.”

Too many Westerners think of Arabs as mere guardians of ancient Greek scholarship, holding it safely until it could be recovered by its rightful European heirs. Lyons wants you to see that Muslims made vast additions to this ancient base, and that the religion of Islam was a driver for many of their efforts.

Lyons feels the “Western consensus… that Islam is inherently hostile to innovation” is a “persistent notion” that is wrong. Because of this, Lyons tells the story from the viewpoint of Arabs – invaded by brutal, ignorant, and unsanitary barbarians (they tended to call all Europeans “Franks”) as the Crusades began.

Anyone clinging to a romantic of the Middle Ages will be disgusted by accounts of the People’s Crusade, fueled as much by political machinations as religious furor. A rabble swept towards the Middle East, killing and sacking through Christian Europe as they went, only to be slaughtered by Muslim troops. A few years later, a Crusade of troops had better luck in war.

The first couple chapters cover this period and amply document its horrors, but I was more interested in Muslim science.

“Early Islam openly encouraged and nurtured intellectual inquiry of all kinds,” which was encouraged by many sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad.

Caliph al-Mamun was anxious to collect knowledge from Hindu, Persian, and Greek scholars, and initiated the House of Wisdom, “the collective institutional and imperial expression of… intellectual ambition.” But they didn’t simply translate and copy the works of others.

Here’s what I found most interesting – how the religion of Islam encouraged science. Continue reading