The Wright Brothers and the American Way

The First Controlled Powered Air Flight - Orville at controls, Wilbur alongside December 17,1903

The First Controlled Powered Air Flight – Orville at controls, Wilbur alongside December 17,1903

At the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, a fragile looking craft is nestled among the imposing rocketry, massive jets, and space capsules that catalogue man’s drive to free himself from his earthbound status and soar like the hawks and eagles.  Made of spruce wood and muslin fabric, crisscrossed by bicycle wire, and supported with landing sleds, it looks like a glorified box kite.  It is, though, the 1903 Flyer, the machine developed by two insightful bicycle mechanics from Ohio named Wright – by which all the other craft became possible.  It is the alpha craft of sustained, controlled flight, and there is no more important relic in the museum.

The story of how this craft came to be, and the special nature of the geniuses behind its development, is the subject of David McCullough’s latest book, The Wright Brothers, and once again, McCullough has brought us a tremendous read.  The two time Pulitzer Prize winning historian, now 81 years of age and himself a national treasure, continues to refine his biographic look at epic Americans, the real people behind the larger than life stories, and the thread of ‘Americanism’ that makes them an ongoing recognizable part of the nation’s unique story. McCullough’s Wright Brothers, are the Americans described by Alexis De Tocqueville – religious, modest, small town diamond-hard workers, who are humble, reserved, yet proud and capable of great vision.  Their success is distinctly American, taking the hard truths of difficult problems, making them their own, and inevitably conquering them, when so many others with more advantage  failed.  McCullough, like the careful craftsman he is, doesn’t try to tell the story through others, but relies on the brothers’ own notes and letters.  McCullough is a storyteller, not a psychoanalyst, avoiding the modern deviations and contrivances of modern biographers, who pretend to be able to understand their subjects’ states of mind and prejudices.  McCullough does not ask you to like or not like The Wright Brothers personalities, only to follow their unbending will as they meticulously conquer earth bound gravity, and foster a revolution in man’s place on this planet. McCullough recognizes better than most, America’s unique philosophic foundation centers the idea that opportunity should abound for all men equally regardless of their individual circumstances.  From such cauldrons of self confidence, unfettered opportunity and an inherent industrious nature, America has produced its Lincolns, Edisons, Reagans, and Wrights.

The Wright brothers,  Wilbur and the fours years younger Orville were born just after the American Civil War. in which the nation was directed toward rebuilding and focusing on its future.  This was the age of civilizing the hostile and unknowable world.  Railroads conquered the difficult terrain to connect the continent.  The light bulb brought activity and awareness to the dark hours, and electricity heretofore unharnessed power.  The combustion engine drove the economy, reducing distances, powering agriculture and eliminating hunger, and providing work for millions.  The Wrights were witnesses, and assumed a natural providence to it all. Their father, a bishop of one of the many sects of the Protestant wave of individual integrity and initiative that underlies the revolution, engendered in his children the balancing act of  personal humility and faith, and competitive need to contribute to the civilizing culture any way God led them.  Achieving the broad education of life as well as in depth foundations that high school provided at that time, the boys were confident they had the tools to understand and self educate as needed, and never sought a college education.  They applied their intuition and industriousness first to publishing, then transportation for individuals through a successful bicycle business, all the while, absorbing the world around them.  When hearing of the attempts by others to solve the millennia long quest to conquer gravity with air travel, the passive transport by hot air balloons restricted by the vagaries of wind direction did not appeal to them so much as the infinitely more difficult concept of individually controlled flight – flight occurring at the spontaneous whim and the premeditated direction of the individual desiring it.

The Wright brothers took to solving the problem of flight much in the way Edison undertook his creations – insight was created by logically understanding the failures that would lead to success.  Having read much of the available literature on aeronautics, they determined success lay instead in their own meticulous build of a knowledge of flight from personal observation.  Hundreds of experiments and thousands of hours of unreimbursed work followed, starting with observations of birds and their tactics of flight, kites, then gliders, materials and environments that might be conducive to flight.  As Wilbur looking back at the process of discovery put it, the key intuition they brought to understanding bird flight others failed to grasp was the process of dynamically controlling flight, not anatomical characteristics of birds conducive to flight.  In other words for Wilbur, it was about the bird, not the wing.  For the Wright brothers, the human pilot would have to be the bird, making continuous flight adjustments, not the passive inhabitant on a flying wing.  Progressively, they combined their experiments into larger and larger gliders, that took the science of aerodynamics and added the control of pitch, roll and yaw to the pilot through the capacity to “induce” the wing to respond to the need by warping to turn or the rudder elevator to lift or dive.

The experiments lead to a glider craft large enough to support a human directing the glider, and the brothers realized they would need a laboratory where they could, unmolested, make the mistakes and adjustments and test them repetitively in ideal conditions.   The key ingredient for gliders was wind, and the most predictable continuous wind on a massively large unimpeded space allowing for soft landing failures was oceanside.  They discovered the outer banks of North Carolina through the US Weather Bureau, and the result was Kitty Hawk, North Carolina and the dunes of Kill Devil Hills the launching ground to the immense flat beaches of the outer banks that would be their laboratory.   In 1901 and 1902, the brothers performed glider experiments that led to sustained flight and impressive control, but when the wind died, the spontaneous flight died with it.  As noted by others, a barn door could ‘fly’ if projected from a height. It would only be recognized to be flight if the barn door once projected towards the ground had the means of changing direction and restoring itself to height again, and reproducibly.  The ultimate step would be powered flight, directed by the individual, not the elements, and by 1903, the Wright brothers felt they were there.

Wilbur Wright demonstrates a controlled turn on a glider at Kitty Hawk - 1902

Wilbur Wright demonstrates a controlled turn on a glider at Kitty Hawk – 1902

The brothers were not twins, but worked so intimately together over a lifetime, that they seemed like a single organism.  They studied their experiments together, fought over results together, and suffered in the harsh conditions of Kitty Hawk together.  The one thing they didn’t do together was fly, for the dangerous conditions were such that they wanted assurance that at least one of them would be able to carry on if there was a tragedy in the course of flight.  Progressive work on the problems of powered flight, including the means of propulsion, lead to advances in craft design including use of a wind tunnel to test, unique propeller design, and a light weight first of its kind aluminum engine to drive the propellers.   With the moment of powered flight seemingly close in December, 1903, the brothers flipped a coin as to who would be the pioneering pilot, and Wilbur won.  The first attempt on December 14th, 1903 by Wilbur was unsuccessful due to conditions with an aborted flight of three seconds causing minor damage to the craft.  Unfailingly humble and consistent in their approach, the next acceptable flight environment was on December 17th, 1903, this time with Orville at the controls.  Wilbur intelligently positioned a camera to record a successful flight and an assistant, John Daniels, snapped the shutter that froze in time one of the most famous moments in history, the photo seen at the head of this article.  In the first recorded powered flight under directed control, Orville travelled 120 feet in 12 seconds, a speed of 6.8 miles an hour,  at 1035 am, landing safely. The brothers alternated 3 more flights that day, the longest Wilbur’s 59 second flight over 800 feet that cemented Kitty Hawk as the birthplace of airplanes.

With the tall tales of so many pretenders, the tragic and at times pathetic failures of so many more educated and infinitely more financed, the immense achievement of the brothers took some time to become known and believed.  Their innate desire for privacy and isolation didn’t help, but their confidence and pride in their accomplishment eventually led to opportunities to show others, and the fact that flight had been conquered by two obscure bicycle mechanics seemed to fuel the achievement internationally.  Over the next years the Wright brothers and their updated Flyers would amaze international audiences of thousands and lead to record after broken record of sustained and controlled flight that was the envy of many other designers. More importantly, the achieving the unachievable cracked the ice forever on creativity, and within ten years the capacities of flight were exponentially expanded, to hours of flight, thousands of feet of elevation, and hundreds of miles an hour.  Materials changed, uses changed, propulsion changed, and the fragile little flyer that lifted of the dune at Kill Devil Hills in December, 1903, soon became unrecognizable.  The principles the Wright brothers had meticulously revealed, however, remain the universal foundation of all human flight, and are still apparent in the pilot seated in the ultralight craft of today.

The Wright’s story does not end in perfect glory and McCullough does not belabor the foibles of human pride and tragedy that interfere with a perfect ending, but Orville at least lived to see the concept of safe flight turned into a routine event for average people.  The story of the providential shift of history achieved by unlikely people from unexpected directions has been the beautiful outcome of the American experiment, and the Wright brothers are one more example of what happens when people determine their own destiny, and drive their own ambitions.  We are steadily heading to a country that wants to foster communal concepts of equal outcome, not equal opportunity, and the result will be millions of lost creative attempts to advance civilization.  We don’t need a country that tries to determine how many bicycle mechanics are needed to best serve society’s needs.  We need a society that stands back and allows bicycle mechanics, if they desire, to try and soar like eagles.



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May 8th, 1945

World War II in Europe is over- Prime Minister Winston Churchill waves to celebratory London crowds

World War II in Europe is over- Prime Minister Winston Churchill waves to celebratory London crowds

At 300 pm, May 8th 1945,  the formal, unconditional surrender of the forces of Germany to the United Nations forces occurred, and the war state that had nearly destroyed Europe lapsed into a peace of sort.  The million man armies of the warring nations on the continent stopped their organized efforts to obliterate each other, and for the first time since September 1st, 1939, the outcome was officially assured.  For the 20 year old infantry man on the front lines on May 8th, the miserable sensation of potentially being the last man to die for his cause so close to the end of judgement mercifully came for a time to a close. As it did for the 24 year old captain, the 30 year old major, 34 year old colonel, and the 44 year old general.  Now 70 years later on the 70th anniversary occasion of VE Day – the day the official end of the war in Europe – the few captains of those men that can say they were there, are 94 years of age and the men they led 90, and all the rest are lost to the mists of time.

At the conclusion of the European portion of the conflict known as World War II, the military colossus astride the world was not one of the ones present at the start of it. The U.S Army in 1939, the year of the European war’s initiation with Germany’s Blitzkrieg into Poland, stood at 178,000 men, the 19th largest force in the world positioned meekly in size between those of Portugal and Bulgaria.  On VE Day, the United States had 12.8 million people in uniform and over 9 million of them in fighting forces across the globe.  By the end, it could project 100 fighting divisions, 60 aircraft carriers, thousands of fighters and bombers, and probably the most devastating submarine service  in the world.  This massive force was linked to the greatest economic production capacity the world had ever seen, supported by the most effective logistics, and capable if necessary of taking the war to any corner of the world with overwhelming weaponry.  With VE Day, those 8 million fighting men turned their martial attentions to defeating the last of the axis of evil, the Japanese Empire, with a horrific and staggering one million casualties estimated still to be necessary to subdue the fanatical mainland defenses of Japan, beyond the 600,000 casualties the Americans had sustained since entering the war three years before.

The picture above reminds us, seventy years later, that the outcome eventually achieved by  the combined titanic forces of the allied nations needed to defeat the Nazi war machine, paradoxically revolved around one man, Winston Churchill.  From the fall of France in May, 1940, until December 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Great Britain stood completely alone in the way of the incredible German military behemoth. One must remember that by May 10th, 1940, the entire continent of Europe was secure in the hands of the Nazi warlord, and the other totalitarian military power, the Soviet Union, was  six months into a nearly two year period cooperating with Germany as its ally in the domination of Europe through treaty.  The scrap remnants of British and Free French forces had escaped destruction of Dunkirk by the barest of margins, leaving Great Britain nearly defenseless to a determined German assault.  Great Britain, was alone and by most measures defeated, and everybody thought so.  Everybody except Winston Churchill, who gambled that the seas that had always provided the buffer for Great Britain. might just allow a certain technical difficulty sufficient to forestall any easy land invasion of the island, and that the ownership of the skies could assist in the delay until Great Britain could somehow convince the Untied States that the means for self preservation lay with fighting the Nazis on the continent of Europe, not the coasts of America.  When no one else believed, Churchill ringingly enunciated belief ,and his words served as power as significant as any division or battleship. He would not quit, and thereby Great Britain would not quit, no matter how overwhelming the odds.  The counterfactual of a world without Winston Churchill easily could be discerned, with a prostrate Great Britain seeking to avoid invasion through  a calamitous peace of enslavement with the Nazis, the Soviet Union soon to face its erstwhile ally now alone, with no counterforce nipping at its heels, and the United States, the buffers of oceans insufficient to successfully fight off the entire rest of the world.  Instead what proved to be Great Britain’s finest hour was ultimately because of the pugnacious leadership of the descendant of the Duke of Marlborough channeling his ancient ancestor.

May  8th, 1945, brought to the end the 2000 year history of Europe as the helmsmen of world history, initiated with Alexander’s conquest of the East in the 4th century BC, through the thousand year dominance of the Roman Empire, the linking of Christendom to the remnants of empire marshaling forth the enormous energies of the warrior kings of The Holy Roman Empire, Spain, and France, the spark of the birth of the individual genius in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the power of the Industrial Revolution and the reach of the citizen marine of Great Britain, that brought the efficient transfer of goods, administration, and connecting language across most of the globe.  On V-E Day a bankrupt and exhausted Great Britain was incapable of funding even a day of its own recovery, and the once formidable nation states of Europe forged from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 at the end of the previous devastating Thirty Years War , lay crushed under the combined weight of the sacrifice of multiple generations of youth and almost 80 million dead in the second Thirty Years War from 1914 to 1945.  The decisions as to the helmsmen of future civilization and power projection instead on that day 70 years ago stood in the grip of the colossus of the New World and the Slavic Empire of the Eurasian continent, and the basic status quo remains to this day, with Europe incapable of projection of influential power by any significant means.

May 8th, 1945 asked America to take on the mantle of helmsmen for those that had made civilization western, and in the seventy years since, when there were ramparts to be defended, America was there.  When the world needed an injection of technology, America provided it.  When the world was in crisis and needed food and assistance America marshaled the resources. At this seventieth anniversary, one has to ask if America has succumbed to the fatigue of sacrifice and endurance required to be the helmsman of so long a tradition, with the contraction of America’s willingness to lead over the last six years.  There does not appear to be any Churchill out there to focus our attentions on the task at hand.

May 8th, 1945, however, most especially brought that unique moment when there was almost universal acknowledgement that the forces of good had triumphed over a marauding evil.  An evil so malign, that the most advanced structure of civilized social structure, education, and culture had succumbed to its dark forces, and that had come to within an eye-blink of dominating the entire globe.  A world in which racial genetics, perverted science, and ruthless totalitarianism would have extinguished any whisper of the world’s diversity, creativity, and individual destiny.   But on May 8th, the most technologically advanced pervaders  of programmed death the world had ever seen, the Nazis, had Quit, and the world deservingly rejoiced.

VE Day   May 8th, 1945

VE Day May 8th, 1945

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Stumbling Toward the Failed State

The Baltimore Riot - 2015 Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Baltimore Riot – 2015
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The looters frozen in time in the above photo have just swept a CVS pharmacy clean of goods as their particular expression of free speech to protest the circumstances surrounding the arrest and subsequent death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland police custody. Freddie Gray was 25 when he was arrested and subdued by officers on April 12th,2015 for attempting to flee police.  He was chased down by officers and shackled hand and foot, and in the period of time from the arrest process and the subsequent 45 minute drive in the police wagon to detention, he sustained a severe spinal cord injury that led to his death one week later.  The city of Baltimore erupted in violent protest, and the city authorities struggled to find a way out from the anger.  The initial incoherent response by the mayor to give the rioters “space to destroy” to vet their emotions quickly was superseded by the governor calling out the National Guard and the authorities instituting a curfew.  The states attorney  Marilyn Mosby, without waiting for completion of the police investigation of the event or interviewing all witnesses,  announced her own department’s initial investigation determined sufficient evidence to rule the death of Mr. Gray as a homicide, and charged six officers of the Baltimore Police force involved in the arrest with various charges, including false imprisonment, negligence, assault and second degree murder charges.  She expressed her actions were a direct response to the riots, stating emotively, ” I heard your call, ‘No Justice, No Peace!’ ” and underscoring her intent to obtain “justice”.

Mr. Gray was arrested in the Sandstown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore, where, according to his brother in law as reported by CNN, his occupation to ‘support his family’ was pharmaceutical sales – of the street kind.  In his short life he had 20 arrests and several incarcerations for various crimes including being a repeat offender of drug possession with intent to sell.  He was already scheduled for an April 24th court date for repeat drug charges when he was stopped by police on April 12th and the subsequent tragic events occurred.  His life parallels so many other urban blight stories that the particular tragic ending to his earthy contribution no longer shocks, so often occurring, as it might in isolation.  The particular willful and uncaring negligence that may prove to have been present by the arm of societal order that interacted with Mr. Gray, is really a microcosm of the societal negligence that has secured the environment for such tragedies prevalent in so much of our modern society. Baltimore is just the most recent example of repeated examples of how we continue to stumble toward a failed state, by our continued willingness to ignore the underlying critical components of the toxic brew.

Mr. Gray’s neighborhood of Sandstown- Winchester is rife with the results of the poisonous potion of modern statist policies.  Two decades ago, the neighborhood was selected for attention to solve the progressive urban blight that had seized the once ordered and prosperous region. Baltimore, for more than 50 years, has been in the hands of statist elites, linked by the terrible triad of democrat monopoly power politics, liberal programs, and self interested local leaders.  The plan to ‘save’ Sandstown- Winchester was not absent of funds or effort – private investors looked to infuse 130 million dollars of ‘quality affordable housing’ cocooned by the usual government designs to provide direct government assistance and to improve health and education of the afflicted neighborhood residents.  Schools were built, over a thousand homes were renovated.  And the neighborhood collapsed even farther down into the terrible engines of despair – poverty, crime, and drug trade.  After two decades of focus, the region is more hopeless than ever, and the calls in response to the recent violent outrage – is for more government programs and ‘targeted’ spending. And nothing, but nothing, done to restore employment opportunities, support individual initiative, or reward behaviors of self improvement.

The Shakespearean ‘hero’ of this tragedy turns out to be Mr. Grey, who was using his own wits to survive in such a neighborhood.  As with so much of the statist impulse, the fact that he and others have continued the cycle of despair with such ‘opportunity’ offered them,  leaves the elitists agog at the failure of collectivist logic to win the local inhabitants hearts and minds. As with all Shakespearean tragedies, the players of the tragedy are foreordained.  Billions of dollars of failed urban investment lead the government to turn to billions more of failed investment.  Generations of immobile inhabitants repeat the failures of the previous generation addicted to the triggers of continuing poverty, with broken families and out of wedlock children, no job experience and worthless educational processes, artificially supported and encouraged by governmental allotment. Government leaders that fight over the amount of governmental largess and the power that comes with it, rather than taking responsibility for the continuing and progressively failed societies they are supposed to serve.  The increasingly distracted police force, that, incapable and unsupported in their role of restoring order and safety to the community, progressively sees the community as a threat and an enemy to be avoided, or subdued.

So is written another chapter of a book with no ending in our modern society.  The local inhabitants without hope, strike out in anarchic fashion.  The statist authorities look to blame race, poverty, police, and the society to prevent the focus on their own cluelessness or any attempt at reduction of their role as power broker.  The police know no one really cares, and they become immune to their own contribution to the madness. And the civilization founded on the principles of life, liberty, and the individual pursuit of happiness through the unfettered opportunity to control one’s destiny, crumbles evermore.

Shakespearean tragedy indeed.  As the Great One said:

Men at some times are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

Baltimore Riots 2015 nationalreviewonline

Baltimore Riots 2015



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Liberal Fascism Tests Its Reach – Who’s Watching?

Big Brother Watching               1984

Big Brother Watching

The state of Wisconsin is known for cheese, the Green Bay Packers, and a pleasantly schizophrenic penchant of voters that sees no conflict with simultaneously electing committed ideologues from both ends of the political spectrum.  What it hadn’t been associated with, until the election of Governor Scott Walker and the enormous battle over Act 10, the sequence of laws mandating political reforms in public unions, was the progressively darker side of American liberalism.  The ugly fascistic side of American liberal thought, however, was well ensconced in the tactics of those who sought to derail Governor Walker, and the techniques now being uncovered progressively bring to mind the mindset of the 1930s and the horrors predicted by Orwell in his brilliant tome of thought police, mass control, and crushing of independent thought, 1984.

This week a vivid tail of state sponsored terrorism was revealed in the unlikely location of Milwaukee, Wisconsin that will test our country’s fealty to the principles of personal liberty, privacy rights, and free speech codified in the Constitution and part of the fundamental fabric of the nation’s consciousness for over 200 years.

The synopsis of events revolve around the stakes for winners and losers in Wisconsin’s epic battle regarding the  power of public unions and their principal benefactors, the Democrat Party and the power of the individual citizen.  With Walker’s election in 2010 the public union stranglehold on the governmental budget was put at risk by Walker’s revolutionary attempt to de-couple the public unions from their source of power, the permanent tithe the unions were able to enforce on the state taxpayer. Surging the percentage of state workers through twenty years and securing for them an ever more unsupportable entitlement by progressively making a larger and larger proportion of the budget non-discrecanary, the unions were buttressed by their partners in the power grab, the Democrat Party.  Democrats saw an ever-growing dependent voter base and a seemingly inexhaustible cash flow from the state coffers to the unions and ultimately to the Party.  The marriage of inexhaustible resources to evermore ideologically pure politicians made for an axis of evil that only a revolutionary approach could stop.  The revolutionary was Walker, and no amount of recall elections, storming the capital, death threats, or hijacking of the legislature was proving capable of dislodging Walker or the elected legislature from achieving the de-couple.

In liberal fascism, however, there is no winning or losing on the ideas or the merits, there is only the eventual victory of ideology, and the fashioning of new state supported means of destroying Walker and his ideas with him took root.  The legal machine, first in the guise of liberal judge injunctions, and then more ominously, in the form of a John Doe investigation of Governor Walker’s staff when he was County Executive for Milwaukee, expanded beyond all bounds was a potential atomic weapon.   John Chisholm, the Democrat District Attorney for the county, exploited an archaic Wisconsin law fashioned to allow a secret review as to whether laws had been broken by government officials into a broad based multi-year siege on Walker.  Chisholm’s conflict of interest, his wife’s position with the very public union Walker’s law would effect, was single minded in his desire something, anything that would smear Walker and take him down.  The first John Doe investigation centered on the use of e-mail for political purposes from government computers, an investigation that if even handed would have taken down the majority of public officials in both parties.  When the conclusions of the initial investigation could not be tied to Walker in any meaningful way, the investigation did not end, but morphed into evermore expanded and brazen attacks on individuals whose only crime was they supported what Walker was doing.

David French in the National Review Online this week describes the harrowing, Constitution busting antics of Chisholm and his enforcement arm, sponsoring middle of the night police raids by armed officers breaking down doors, invading private property, and threatening individuals with the moxie mirroring the tactics of the Soviet Cheka or German Gestapo.  Chisholm has remained unapologetic and frankly thus far immune to any public outrage regarding the unwarranted trashing of people’s rights because they were members of conservative groups that supported Walker as their only “crime”.  Megyn Kelly of Fox interviewed French regarding the ugly truths exposed recently:

This is certainly no isolated example of the progressive reach into extra-constitutional territory by the liberal elites of this nation led by the facioso in chief.  Whether it is the weaponizing of the IRS to target conservative groups that could have proved a political competition for Obama, the ignoring of legislation that mandates immigration policy, or the harassing of the tea party, the extra-legal means of achieving ideology has spread from the executive on down to the local governments and universities.  We are now seeing the banning of conservative talk on campus, the harassing groups such as jews or christians, climate change deniers or fracking advocates, that may be antithetical to the goals 0f the ideology, and the neutering of the military’s role from defender of the country to enforcer of the political correctness that infects and strengthens the ideology.  With each day, the tenets of the obscure radical Alinsky, become the calling cards of the progressive elite that see their role to permamently transform, what they have been unable to change through reason and measured debate.

The Constitution remains the bulwark against the brazen tactics of these committed and righteous radicals.  The Supreme Court may potentially take up the cause of the Club for Growth supporters that were so abused.  This pattern of Constitution trampling has to be stopped in its tracks for the miserable miscreants it creates, and the intolerable actions they think they can get away with, because they believe nobody cares enough anymore. If it turns out that people have stopped caring, George Orwell may have known us better than we ever would have guessed, and this world will descend into a very,very dark place.

Big Brother is Watching                    1984

Big Brother is Watching


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Now He Belongs to the Ages…

President Abraham Lincoln            March, 1865

President Abraham Lincoln
March, 1865

To reach beyond the mists of time and bring immediacy to the events that gripped a nation one hundred fifty years ago is an extremely difficult proposition. The war that cleaved across the breath of the American land mass and struck into the life blood of nearly every American family is at best a distant recollection and for most has little emotional relevance.  The modern society struggles to understand the passion and commitment individual Americans brought to the concepts of union, liberty, individual rights, and the relationship of a governed people to its government that so stirred the nation to the cataclysmic conflict.  From Sharpsburg, Maryland to Glorieta Pass, New Mexico, the remnants of titanic battle scattered among fields, cemeteries, memorials and roads the strategic value of which are known to few and passed by millions without a glint of recognition of what lies beneath the traveled path.

It has not always been so.  The intense emotions that built over 30 years and exploded in the war that cost over 600,000 lives and immense destruction were for decades an acute sensation in the hearts of both north and south.  The events at Appomattox that culminated in the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9th, 1865 were documented in the previous Ramparts, but the final act of the tragedy that forever secured the sacristy of the conflict was the murder of the national leader five days later on April 14, 1865.  In a conflict that demanded the loss of so many, it was the almost Christ like death of Abraham Lincoln that seemed to stop the process of destruction forever in its tracks, as if a provision  for washing the sins away for a wayward people had been pre-ordained.  The stolen life of a single man seemed to bring a closure not possible through any other contemplated outcome.

On April 14th, 1865, the President of a United States that had fought an epic battle with itself for its very unity, was reported by many observers that day to be in an especially ebullient mood.  He participated in a productive cabinet meeting in which he laid out his determination to steer a magnanimous course for the nation’s reconstruction, and for the first time in many nights planned a strictly social outing that evening to attend a popular play currently playing at the Ford’s theater in Washington ,Our American Cousin.  He had invited his victorious general of the armies, U.S. Grant, to accompany the President and his wife, but due to a relative lack of comfort the two wives had for each other, Grant deferred.  The President looking forward to the life affirming experience of laughter after so many years of crushing responsibility and tragedy, determined to go anyway.

It was Lincoln’s fate that the leading actor of the playhouse, John Wilkes Booth, saw himself as an actor on a far greater stage than that of the local theater, and had for months determined to play a defining role in history.  The headmaster of a particularly bizarre gaggle of malcontents and miscreant Southern sympathizers,  Booth self-identified  as the avenger to reverse the fortunes of a conflict that the South had for months progressively pointed toward defeat.  With the South’s defeat assured with its army’s collapse at Appomattox, Booth somehow convinced himself that with an epic sacrifice, the tide would be reversed.  The cleansing act would be the decapitation of the Union leadership, with the violent deaths of the President, leading General, Vice President and Secretary of State to so shock the North that it would sue for peace and give the South the breathing room it needed.  The cockamamie plan required the simultaneous actions of multiple conspirators, but Booth gave himself the honor of removing the hated victorious President .

It was a sign of the innocence of the times that Booth and his fellow conspirators came as close as they did to accomplishing the calamitous plan.  As the President sat in the Presidential box at Ford’s to enjoy the play, Booth’s fellow conspirators fanned across Washington to remove the other stalwarts of government.  The conspirator Lewis Powell showed the most malevolent commitment, entering the house of the Secretary of State  William Seward, viciously attacking Seward’s son nearly killing him, then cascading up the stairs of the residence to enter the bedroom of the prostrate Seward, who had been severely injured in a recent carriage accident and was recovering.  Slashing with a knife, Powell nearly killed the Secretary of State before being incapacitated by the Secretary’s other sons and household servants.  The conspirator Atzerodt was positioned at the Willard Hotel, the residence of the Vice President of the United States, Andrew Johnson, but lost his nerve to attack and went off to get drunk, thus saving the Vice President for the honor of replacing the irreplaceable.

The penultimate act was left to Booth himself.  The President resided at the theater in a box accompanied by an army major, Henry Rathbone, Rathbone’s fiancé, and the President’s wife.  The President’s security detail was, stunningly given the emotions of the times, a single police officer, John Frederick Parker, who determined to be across the street at a tavern during the play’s intermission and never returned, leaving the President accessible to anyone who determined to enter the box.  Booth, as a celebrity, had no problem entering the Presidential box, and waited for an acknowledged line in the play that never failed to bring laughter across the house.  With the comedic line delivered, the President leaned back and with his last conscious act enjoyed a final moment of relaxed joy, as Booth positioned himself directly behind the president, placed a revolver against the President’s head – and fired.

A single bullet from close range entered President Lincoln’s brain from the left and lodged behind his right eye, and for all intent he joined the hundreds of thousands who passed in the war’s previous days and years, as the final sacrifice of a country’s death spasm.  The laughing crowd did not immediately interpret the muffled shot as apart from the play as the terminally wounded President slumped forward, then back, but the experienced Major Rathbone recognized the sound and scent of gunpowder and sprung into the assassin. Booth struck him with a knife and managed to free himself from Rathbone’s grasp, then leapt from the box only to catch his boot on the patriotic bunting and awkwardly fell the twelve feet to the stage , breaking his ankle.  The 1700 attendants to the nation’s first presidential assassination slowly grasped the reality, and turned their gaze to the box, then to Booth as he exclaimed an oath, eventually codified in legend as “sic semper tyrannis” – “thus always, to tyrants!”, though the actual words were heard differently be every shocked person close enough to hear them.  Booth ran off the stage and into history as devil incarnate, destroying any chance the nation had at a measured and wise reconciliation.

The unconscious President was brought across the street to the Peterson House, where military surgeons quickly determined the wound to be fatal.  So began the vigil of the President’s family, government leaders, and the nation, with President Lincoln drawing his last  breath at 7:22 am on April 15th, 1865.  As word spread of the events of the night and the President’s death, the stunned realization that the President who had somehow shepherded the country through four years of incalculable horror, had at the very moment of triumph and peace, been sacrificed at the altar of a sinful nation, progressively took hold.  Lincoln, in life, who had been viewed variably by the many touched by the conflict, began to assume in such a senseless death, a sanctification that seemed almost inevitable.  A man who had come from the simplest of roots, had grown to lead a people with an almost devine sense of the way forward when many around him felt lost.  The careful and gracefully beautiful language, the context of the words, the steady and careful hand of leadership, the bottomless well of humanity inherent in this man came to represent the whole of the goodness of those who endeavored to leave their homes and safety and risk all for the concept of a just cause.

The funereal journey seized the national consciousness, as did the furious manhunt for the conspirators.  The murderer Booth met his end 9 days later in a shootout at a Virginia barn; the other conspirators were hunted down and eventually met their fate at the end of a hangman’s noose. The vengeance though complete, seemed so unequal to the loss.

With the passing of the years, Lincoln’s stature has grown to where he is seen as the equal of the greatest of leaders in human history.  As Secretary Stanton preciently stated upon witnessing the moment of the great man’s death, “Now he belongs to the Ages..”  A man so much of his own time, Lincoln spoke of the potential of mankind as God’s vehicle for a better time, to be touched, as he so beautifully expressed, by the better angels of our nature. In our current day, where horrors once again abound, Lincoln’s profound humanity soars above his moment on earth, and truly belongs to our age every bit as all the others. In such ageless humanity, lies for us  the slightest glimmer of hope.

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The Final Acts of a Calamity

Post Battle Ruins of Richmond, Virginia April, 1965

Post Battle Ruins of Richmond, Virginia April, 1965

War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.
William Tecumseh Sherman


April 2015 is the 150th anniversary of the denouement of the American Civil War, the calamity that defined the nation and whose tendrils still refine the consciousness of its people. As history recedes as an area of interest for the average American, the fundamental and inexorable causes leading to the war and the intensity and sacrifice of millions of people to the concept of a cause seems a trite and faded memory of a long ago time.  The America that saw ideals as concepts to be defended with life as necessary doesn’t seem real to the current generation, who see the nation as a means of dispensing resources, and not a standard to uphold.  To the American of 1861-1865, however, ideals were very real things and were equally real to the farmer from Wisconsin, the plantation owner from Mississippi, the news editor from New York, or the slave laborer in Alabama. For each the ideals were different, but the stakes in losing, total.How to persuade someone to whom losing is not an option, that they have indeed lost, is the centerpiece of any calamitous conflict, and the story of the last 14 days of the civil war are as eventful as any before.

Ramparts has addressed the unique circumstances of the final day of surrender of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia before, but of equal historical interest is the final acts that led to the concluding day.  As we enter the story 150 years later, a cursory reminder of the tactics leading to the final chapter is appropriate for perspective.  Although the Civil War may on the surface seem archaic for its fixed set-piece battles and agonal use of men as expendable targets of attrition, the tactics by both sides following the elevation of General Grant to supreme commander of the Union forces following the victories of July , 1863 at Vicksburg and Gettysburg were extremely modern and innovative.  For the Union north, with superior resources and population, the plan outlined by Grant to President Lincoln was continental in scope and consistent with the modern concept that the morale and comfort of the population supporting the enemy army was the true target to weaken and destroy the army.  Grant’s comprehensive plan was for General Meade’s Army of the Potomac to find, pin down and decimate Lee’s Army of Virginia while the Army groups of Sherman, Braggs, and Butler were to wreak havoc in the South’s interior, destroying communications, railways, and supplies, bringing the war to the doorstep of the population of the South,  and carving up the residual Confederate armies into more and more isolated and digestible units.  General Lee’s plans were equally modern.  Lee sought to maintain superior ground, interior lines of communication, and bleed the opponent white to such an extent that the never ending war would be too expensive for the northern population to tolerate any longer.

The initial experiences of 1864 suggested Lee would be right as Grant was aggressively drawn in to bloodbath after blood bath in Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania to Cold Harbor and finally into a miserable trench warfare at Petersburg on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital.  In the first thirty days of the Overland campaign, Grant stunningly lost over 54,000 men and was perceived as a ‘butcher’ in the northern press. But the the Army of Northern Virginia was now pinned down, and the rest of Grant’s plan began to play out, with Sherman eventually laying devastation to the deep south through Atlanta, through Georgia to the coast at Savannah, then brutally through the Carolinas.  By the end of March, 1865, it was Lee who was reactive and  desperate for materials and men, and Grant who was reinforced and aggressive.

Yet, the conflict was fought by men to whom death was preferable to loss of ideal, and despite the staggering differences by this time in both men and material, the end was not one of timid collapse but rather one of a contest of inch by bitter inch.  It is often inconceivable to imagine the ability to fight tenaciously when all odds are against you and surrender would allow self preservation, but the sense of hopelessness seems to somehow instill tenacity beyond all sense.  A weakened southern army remained a bunch of badgers led by a lion, and Grant still sought the means to somehow crack the will of the committed.

After nine months of battles and siege at Petersburg, the Southern trench lines had finally been stretched to the point of cracking, and Grant determined that if a  crack were to be developed, a tsunami would follow.  Lee felt the pressure first and attempted a breakout on Grant’s right at Fort Steadman on March 25th,1865, with initial success in puncturing the edge of the northern line only to be crushed by a furious Union counterattack.  The southern forces retreated to their trenches but severe damage had been done to Southern infantry strength with over 4000 casualties and no means of reinforcing.  Grant seized

The envelopment of Petersburg April 1-2, 1865

The envelopment of Petersburg April 1-2, 1865

the opportunity and on March 29, a crack was finally developed in the impenetrable southern defenses and Grant’s VIth Corp lanced inward and forced the South to contract and support. General Sheridan’s Cavalry force, by this time as feared as any the South had developed swung around the union left to attempt the severing of Lee’s supply lifeline at Five Forks on April 1st, 1865, and the result was catastrophic for the South with envelopment of over 8000 troops of general Pickett and collapse of Lee’s right flank. On April 2nd, Grant found the final crack on the right and the crack became a deluge as two Union Army Corps poured through the decimated defenses.  Lee found himself now surrounded on three sides and had to evacuate the trenches of Petersburg and the Confederate capital city of Richmond.

The Army of Northern Virginia was now on the run, and unlike every other time in the war with similar circumstance, such as McClellan after Antietam and Meade after Gettysburg, Grant recognized the opportunity for a final kill and performed a perfect pursuit and destruction.  Lee had one chance remaining, to achieve supply support at Appomattox and attempt to rejoin the Southern Army of the Carolinas, now fighting off Sherman’s crushing attacks.

The Final Acts at Appomattox  April 4th-9th, 1865

The Final Acts at Appomattox April 4th-9th, 1865

Grant assumed the role of anaconda and pursued, pinned, and cut off fragments of Lee’s support until the envelopment was total on April 9th, 1865 and Lee was forced to acknowledge he was the fox surrounded by hounds, and the end was inevitable.  To assume that such considerations led men to becoming self-preserving is to deny that the final 14 day struggle took over ten thousand lives, with neither army letting up an ounce.  For both sides, the end justified the sacrifice, and the overwhelming superiority of the Union capacities assured that inexorable force would win out over any desperate heroism.  This was a time of heroes however, who drew their own conclusions and inspiration from loyalty to their cause, and fought tooth and nail to the very end.

We are left with the famous stillness at Appomattox, where the overwhelming recognition of finality struck both sides simultaneously.  Lee, to whom losing was anathema, and Grant, who saw winning completely the only means to peace, found a way to achieve the peaceful stillness that allowed a reconciliation thought impossible only hours before.  One hundred and fifty years later, the victory stands tall as the means of preserving the original principles of the nation, that all men are created equal, and that individuals can have a full say in their destiny.  The price that both sides paid to achieve such laudable ideals is incalculable in the extent of the calamity or the effect on the families.  It was cruel, but it was necessary and it was purifying, though it took decades to fully wash out the stains.

On this 150th anniversary, we could use a reminder as to the closure we achieved as Americans, and what it required to achieve it.  In today’s superficial understanding by most as to the benefits of this great nation, a moment of stillness is in order.



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Mr. Transformation

The President of the United States of America

The President of the United States of America

Mr. Obama announced on the night of his epical election in 2008 to the presidency of the United States that he felt he was called to fundamentally transform the United States of America.  It wasn’t perhaps noticed by that remark that he intended to do the same to the world.

Well now, everybody’s listening.

Six years of Obama foreign policy and the world has definitely been transformed. Libya and Syria have descended into total anarchy. Russia, its relations with the United States “reset”,  forcibly  annexed 10,400 square miles of its neighboring country the Ukraine in taking Crimea and paid no price. Iraq is in the throws of an invasion of the Islamic caliphate and the United States supports Iranian ground troops in the country to support the Shia dominated government.  The United States works to improve relations with the communist mafia of Cuba and thumbs its nose at its closest ally, Canada, who desires to share its oil bounty with the Unites States in the largest job project in years, the Keystone pipeline.  And in the zenith of transformations, the United States is seeking to assure the islamic revolutionists of Iran a lifting of sanctions accompanying a long term path to nuclear weaponry, bypass the United States Congress in achieving this goal, and looking to break its long treasured shared vision with Israel and allow the U.N. to instead sanction Israel.  And he’s just getting started.

Those who would consider this to be a man who, based on results, hasn’t a clue as to what he is doing, are under a false assumption.  President Obama knows very well what he is doing.  He is transforming the world.  From his standpoint the world was in desperate need of transformation.  To Mr. Obama, and the ‘intellectual’ apologists of the far left, history has been for far too long unfairly tilted to the domination of the western world.  The western ideals of individual initiative, technological advantage, exploitation of natural resources and suppression of the collective impulses of less developed nations has led to an unnatural superiority.  The outward projection of this western advantage has been to subjugate, colonize, and otherwise globalize the natural regional advantages of various peoples to their detriment. This has led to unnatural circumstances.  The hegemony of the United States in policing the world. The presence of Euro-Judean government in the home of the arab nation, propped up there by Western force.  The inability of African and other third world nations to get past their post colonial births.  All influenced by the casual consumer decadent culture of the Anglo-European perception of cultural superiority.

The ultimate test for the president’s re-working of the world is the need to crack the code of the Middle East and in particular, the forty year need for the United States to be the policeman in order to prop up Israel, suppress Iran, and cap terrorist impulses.  The Unified Field Theory connects Israel and Iran inextricably.  Iran, the primary exporter and underwriter of terrorism can potentially be mollified if its natural regional hegemony is recognized for the 2500 year history it has been the region’s dominant player.  By accepting Iran into a world leadership position, it would naturally look to prosper in other ways other than Armageddon theories, and would build its economy while reducing its role in instability through terrorism. The need for aggressive nuclear ambitions would be reduced by the eventual political neutering  of its abject foe Israel, eventually sublimated by the achievement of a porous border policy that has been so effective in changing the dynamic of the US.  The risk that Iran would not play nice would be reduced by the obvious capacities of the US, China, and Russia to maintain their own spheres of influence.  The Europeans, long past any inclinations of cultural identity and immersed in their own population contraction with the resultant consequences, would be more than willing to trade a difficult moral dilemma in Israel for a period of peace and stability.

And that’s what’s so irritating about the Cotton Letter from the United States Senate and the inconceivable outcome of the Israeli election in re-electing Benjamin Netanyahu.  The constant threat of having to compromise the grand vision is what is so irritating to this man.  After all, he intends to show the world why he was deserving of that Nobel Peace Prize.  In the end, when the world is back in its natural balance, the world is going to thank him. Wait and see…



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Not Exactly Camelot

New York Post front page          March 11, 2015

New York Post front page
March 11, 2015


“The rule of law in the U.S. is becoming the rule of lawyers.”
Niall Ferguson


In 1215, on a meadow field known as Runnymede outside the environs of present day London, England’s barons determined to secure once and for all the relationship of a ruler and his people. They secured King John’s signature to the document known as the Magna Carta, a charter that secured various freedoms, but more fundamentally, the principle that the rule of law was ultimately the final adjudicator of all citizens, whether they be king, or commoner. The concept of arbitrary rule was thus consigned to the dustbin of history, in all lands where free men were found.

800 years later, a copy of the Magna Carta lies in the National Archives next to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution to remind one of how much is owed to this basic concept of freedom, and the common thread of principles that protect our liberties.

Unfortunately, the number of people who understand and want to protect the concept has dwindled to a pitiful few.

And one of them is definitely NOT the suggested potential anointed leader of the free world, one Hillary Rodham Clinton.  In a press conference yesterday the former Secretary of State of the United States and potential future President of the United States reminded all that if rule of law is your ideal, you might want to look for a leader elsewhere.  Not that this is new information.  The anointed one has been a rogue regarding the rule of law since she stepped onto the national stage some forty years ago as an assistant council on the Watergate committee , and flashed all the characteristics of her royal roguedum for the modern audience in case anyone forgot.

The press conference like all staged Clinton events was supposed to be a means by which Mrs. Clinton could bury any further conversations regarding her recently exposed use of a private e-mail service for both official and unofficial correspondence as Secretary of State, but her performance assured the issues wouldn’t go away anytime soon.  The brazen insistence that she had effectively addressed all concerns with her release of a portion of the email stream reminded us what this lawyer seems to be genetically missing – the idea that laws and the rules they engender are for everyone, and the rules for those who would govern particularly sensitivized to reduce the risk of corruption.  The Clintons, however, have always held the unique position that laws are arbitrarily interpretable, and that they were always the best positioned as to which ones they would follow and which ones they would skirt.  The former President Clinton at least brought his formidable personality and political skill to the game.  Poor Hillary has always been the edgier and more adversarially corrupt lawyer to the simplest of ethics, from the lying that led to her expulsion from the Watergate committee, to her role at the Rose Law firm regarding billing and the stonewalling on the subpoenaed records, the dark flailing about with the seamy Whitewater real estate affair as a victim of a far flung conspiracy, the cattle futures nonsensical explanation, and the hypocritical hatchet-job attacks on those that would dare fall under her husband’s lecherous influence all the while proclaiming her role as the Feminist in Chief.

The last 12 years have been a rehearsal for the job she has assumed hers, the Presidency.  She carpet bagged a residency in New York State to allow her to be handed the Moynihan Senate seat, ran for President in 2008 only to be swallowed by another more clever actor in Barrack Obama, then took the Foreign Policy role absent from her CV as Secretary of State under President Obama.  Having left the various messes behind for her successor John Kerry to deal with, she felt she had managed to position herself as inevitable for the top job.

The old Hillary problem however, her inability to do anything for a reason other than being self serving, simply could not be suppressed even when endowed with the most compliant and willing press.  The cracks were finally exposed with the tragedy of Benghazi and top came off with greedy need to make money the only way she has ever understood, having other people set her riches up.  The combination of incompetence and shady money deals needed a special capacity to control information and Mrs. Clinton found the perfect solution in likely becoming the first senior government executive to maintain all her interactions on a personal server despite her obvious role as a historical government figure. This ludicrous arrangement allowed her to erase any interactions she felt questionable or averse to the narrative of the most prepared public servant in history.  It made any conflicts of interest regarding her actions and the governments and people willing to give the Clintons millions through their foundation difficult if not impossible to trace,  All it would take would be for everyone to acquiesce to the idea that Mrs. Clinton could be trusted to protect the people’s business and separate the professional from the personal by her own rules of behavior.

And thus the press conference where she declared public records as the nation’s chief foreign policy representative to be the first in history held privately hostage, secure behind client attorney privilege.  She announced that no security breach on a private server was possible because it was physically guarded by the Secret Service, that 30,000 e-mails were destroyed as they related to her yoga schedule or daughter Chelsea’s weeding, or personally intimate interactions with her husband( who unfortunately denied having ever sent more than two e-mails in his life).   She declared there were no emails regarding her decisions leading to the Benghazi debacle and she could be trusted on that fact.  And she topped it all off, by saying as ‘ I am so forthcoming’, there would be no more access to her records or her server.  If you need to have your head explode, I recommend you watch the whole thing. The cliff-notes version however is here, and I suspect that will likely still be enough to have your head explode.

Now the watch begins.  I have always predicted that it was very likely Mrs. Clinton would not run for President because of the enormous baggage that would be exposed if she did so, and if she brazenly ran anyway, would show thee same fatal flaws that took her down in 2008.  That was before any of this mess.

In the end it always goes back to the rule of law.  You pay your taxes because its the law.  You don’t discriminate because it’s the law. You don’t steal because it’s the law. You don’t enter a country illegally because it’s the law. You don’t destroy evidence because it’s the law.  And it’s the law whether you’re the President the Secretary of State, or just another nondescript schlub.  And because the law deals with everyone on equal terms, it is as protective of your rights, as it is the most exalted leader of the land.

Are we going to throw that all away by electing a person that has never had a smidgen of understanding what I am talking about, or why that would even matter?  As Mrs. Clinton put so bluntly, “At this point, what difference would it make?”

All the difference in the world.

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Martyrs and Absolute Rulers

Boris Nemtsov sight of martyrdom in front of the Kremlin

Boris Nemtsov sight of martyrdom in front of the Kremlin

I have returned from a brief sabbatical from Ramparts to find a world progressively in disarray. Acknowledging the responsibility that comes with Ramparts of Civilization being the currently ranked  #8, 785,839 busiest internet site in the world based on on-site traffic, I felt my loyal audience would probably be able to stand a short respite from my point of view.  For you few decerning readers though, the absence of commentary on the fascinating events of the last few days without the specific purview as to how it will effect the future of western civilization probably left you a little wanting and directionless.  I will therefore try to do my best in my own humble way to once again try to tie it progressively together.

We start in the year 1170 with Thomas Becket, of course.  Henry II of England had definitely had enough of Thomas’s irritating desire to point out his flaws, and did what absolute rulers are prone to do – make a spectacle so others might learn.  Making sure the appropriate command was sent in a way that would absolve him of the need for direct action, Henry proclaimed to his court, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”  Noting Thomas’s proclivity as archbishop in hanging near the nation’s grandest 220px-English_-_Martyrdom_of_Saint_Thomas_Becket_-_Walters_W3415V_-_Open_Reverseshrine, the Canterbury Cathedral, Henry’s most professional knight assassins traveled to Britain’s most sacred ground, to make sure Thomas would no longer be a thorn in Henry’s side, and that everybody would know it.  The assassins made short work of Thomas at the altar and left him for public display.  With this monstrous event, Thomas had been made martyr, and Henry made his point.  Like all absolute rulers committing public sin Henry thrashed about looking for  Becket’s killers, but didn’t look very hard.  Henry even did an appropriate amount of public penance in front of Becket’s tomb, to show his subjects his recognition of the extent of sin committed, but their king was still king in complete charge, and Becket’s influence in effecting  change lost to the mists of time.

And so we lived 845 years later with another display of martyrdom of an opposition leader paying the price for irritating the absolute ruler. In a very public display reminiscent of Becket, Boris Nemtsov was assassinated by professionals in front of Russia’s most sacred church and the Kremlin, for the crime of pointing out the flaws of today’s absolute ruler, Putin.  This Putin knew his Henry II role well, already “taking over” the search for his killers, and lamenting the action so brazen at Russia’s sacred ground.  He has publicly apologized to Nemtsov’s mother. Well, as Shakespeare said, He “doth protest too much”.  The chances of Putin finding Nemtsov’s murderer is excellent, given the number of mirrors in the Kremlin. The chances of Russia finding justice with this increasingly malevolent dictator is considerably less likely, and the message is clear to all.  You defy the boss, and the boss will act.

Henry II and Putin have something else in common. Neither had any concern that the alleged leader of their world would do anything significant.  Henry had his Pope Alexander, who had appointed Becket bishop in the first place, but Henry knew the Church of England was progressively his church and Pope Alexander made a Becket a religious martyr, not a political one, and nothing was done.  So too does Putin have his Obama, who despite insult after challenge after provocation after crime, has stood silently as Putin has recognized his adversary for the foil that he is.

Russia is becoming a very dark place.  There is no place for brave patriots like Boris Nemtsov or, in absentia, Gary Kasparov.  The idea of liberty that so briefly shone when Boris Yeltsin rose onto the tank so many years ago and declared the dictatorship police state gone is a faint and withered memory.  In one of the most interesting twists of history, Boris Yeltsin, as his power was waning in 2000, determined to select his successor.  His assumed successor, his right hand man, a libertarian named Boris Nemtsov, was at the last moment set aside for an obscure former KGB officer named Vladimir Putin, and Russia was changed forever.  Nemtsov’s Russia is now a Russia we will never know, and Vladimir Putin made sure of that.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Vice Premier Boris Nemtsov

Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Vice Premier Boris Nemtsov



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The Grand Secret of the Whole Machine

Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton

The newtonian contemporary Scottish mathematician John Arbuthnot, an intellect in his own right, and a man who would become famous as the individual who introduced the characature ‘John Bull’ to the world as the symbol of Great Britain, looked upon the creation that was Isaac Newton in awe.  Reviewing Newton’s masterpiece, Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Arbuthnot declared that Newton had done no less than reveal the grand secret of the whole Machine”.   So quotes James Gleick in his wonderful biography of Isaac Newton as he helps put in perspective a genius that may never have come before or since.

Isaac Newton is one of those incomparable and unrepeatable creations in the human story that defy all explanation.  Newton came from dust, and dust he would become, but it was indeed cosmic dust that was not the stuff of normal men. Born in 1642 in the  tiny hamlet of Woolsthorpe Manor in County Lincolnshire, far from the center of any environment that would possibly be expected to be formative to his colossal genius, Newton somehow found his way in forty short years to the center of adulation among the greatest of men.  With his father  having died before his birth, and his mother abandoning him to relatives, young Isaac was a stranger to human kindness and learned to internalize his thoughts from his very first years.  Exposed to relatives who assumed he at best would be a farmer, he was given the rudimentary school education of farming, including some simple math that would occasion a farmer.  Newton hated the very idea of farming and in his intense isolation began a lifelong habit of recording his every thought on paper provided by the school.  This was one lonely, lonely twelve year old  boy.  He wrote in his private torment, recording  the scorn of others –” what imployment is he fit for? What is hee good for?” and his own lonely sadness – “I will make and end. I cannot but weepe. I know not what to doe.” Not exactly the confidence of a king philosopher.

The family, noting the isolated nature of the boy and recognizing at least this was no farmer, arranged for Newton to take the education of the clergy.  An appointment to the College of the Trinity at Cambridge was achieved to have Newton enter as a sizar, a position at the college whereby a person with no means could obtain an education by being a servant to the other collegians at Cambridge of greater means or nobility.  His family gave him little money, but did gave the obsessive Newton a greater gift – the gift of 140 blank pieces of paper and the ink to fill them. And fill them he did, soon with ballooning observations questions and data tables well beyond any expected to link to his classic education.  The library at Cambridge became Newton’s  brain, the notebooks he so meticulously recorded his laboratory for a science he was beginning to invent – nothing less than the meaning of everything.  Newton questioned everything, and at a time when he was preparing for the clergy in the College based on the concept of the undivided Trinity, a fair amount of heresy.  The legend of the mental capacity of the obsessive student grew and Newton was eventually accepted into the college, passed examinations in mathematics and eventually made a scholar.  He read Euclid, Aristotle, Descartes, studied Kepler and Galileo – the philosophers that only a spec of humanity would be exposed to due to the rare concept of the book and the printed word.  But Newton did not read them to emulate them, but to see beyond them.

The notebooks grew and grew, and through the 1660s and 1670s Newton was literally inventing an entire philosophy of observation and experimentation that would change the world and man’s place in it forever.  And almost no one knew.  The brilliant thinking and experimentation that would become epochal treatises on Optics, Fluids, Calculus, and the very basic truths of the universe were intermingled with other thoughts on Alchemy and Religion that Newton valued equally, but wanted no one to see, and no one to criticize.  It would take one of the venial sins, vanity , to bring Newton out in the open and unleash upon the world the elements of incomprehensible genius.

In 1675, Newton joined the Royal Society, and began to divulge the extent of what he had been keeping from others.  The first tentative organized thoughts on paper, a treatise on Hypothesis of Light and Color, and he came up against his first real politic.  The Society was filled with other men that felt they were eminent philosophers, men like Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle, who were concerned the upstart Newton was impossibly knowledgeable and had to be piggybacking on more educated men’s work, particularly their own. To a sensitive isolate like Newton, who knew the extent of his experimentation, observation, and logic, the words stung like acid.  He reacted by withdrawing contact with the Society and the other philosophers.

It would take Halley’s Comet to bring him back for good.  In 1681, the comet described by Halley and the Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed were communicating with Newton their thoughts on the natural explanations of what had always thought to have been a Devine occurrence, the transient glory of the celestial phenomena of the comet.  Newton cagily let Halley know that he thought he had the answers they had been looking for, but was not about to expose himself to the intense ridicule that his earlier, less in depth  musings had ensnarled him. Halley and others encouraged Newton to be definitive, and the world has never been the same.

In 1684, Isaac Newton published a definitive series of observations, the Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica,  that sought to explain the actions of the comet of Halley and with it, every object on earth, the moon, the sun and stars.  In short the laws that governed everything.  Newton’s laws, as they became known , defined the influence of every physical object in existence upon every other, and the incredibly mysterious force that explained their mutual influence, that of gravity.  In Newton’s olympian treatise, the answer to Galileo’s observations and Kepler’s measurements, the tides, celestial bodies, and the very presence or absence of matter was explained – and it was natural, and predictable.  The incredible bomb that was unleashed on the learned world was nothing less than a supernova.  The very private hermitic man newton was now the most public of men.   As the world progressively was learning that knowledge meant power, Great Britain was the possessor additionally of maybe the most powerful of men.  A French philosopher made aware of all consuming knowledge of Principia stated in awe of Newton, “Does he eat, and drink, and sleep?  Is he like other men?’  Halley called it the “splendid ornament of our time” and “incomparable”.

The ideas that were created in the mind of Newton were so far ahead of their measurable existence in science, that he began to become progressively both legend and target.  And the brilliant man became venal as the attacks surged.  What of this Gravity that requires Infinite Space and Infinite Time? How can something just Be, and work in a vacuum?  From across the channel came a new ferocious and formidable antagonist, the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz.  Newtonian principles appalled him – “the fundamental principle of reasoning is,  nothing is without cause!”, Leibniz thundered.  Even more adversarial, Newtonian proofs were stated utilizing a new mathematical  technique Newton described as Fluxions which bore striking resemblance to Leibniz’s own calculus he had recently described.   Newton was again accused of being a sophisticated plagiarist.  This time, he came out with all barrels blazing, and declared his model of calculus proceeded Leibniz by decades, and it was instead Leibniz who was the usurper of Newton’s creative genius.  The fight raged and became international as the newly outward looking Britain was willing to support its hero against continental reactionaries like Leibniz.  The truth was imperically that in a world of extremely poor communication, the two geniuses likely came up with calculus simultaneously, and independently.  The new Newton however never again retreated to his isolation.  He took on the persona of the premier intellect in the world, became President of the Royal Society, and fought off others as he once was offended to be treated.

The death of Newton in 1726 was treated as no event to that time in the history of Britain.  For the first time a commoner was buried among the royal elite in Westminster Abbey. Newton the Legend grew and grew over time as his laws held up to three hundred years of progressively more accurate scientific investigation.  It was not until a genius of equal vision, Einstein, secured the gaps of reality that Newton could not explain, the actions of the very largest and smallest bodies that would not respond to the perfect nature of gravity, instead influenced by the very nature of time and space effected by visible light.  In a time of extremely limited tools of discovery, Newton had taken thought journeys with the limiting feature only the vast capacity of his visionary mind.  He saw himself as recognizing the smooth pebble from the many rough, on the shores of a vast ocean of untapped knowledge.  He is quoted as humbly seeing his advances as the natural progression of human thought – “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.  But Newton knew what he had conceived, and what he had achieved, and knew himself to be every bit one of the true giants.  Newton’s clergical soul saw himself as revealing the infinite and bountiless beauty of the Creator Himself. He knew with gift of Devine inspiration, he had discovered  the Grand Secret of the Whole Machine.

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