Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Happy birthday, Charles Robert Darwin

Charles Darwin, shortly after his return from the voyage of the Beagle. If he were still alive, he'd be 200 years old today

Charles Darwin, about age 30, shortly after his return from the voyage of the Beagle. If he were still alive, he'd be 200 years old today.

Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin (and of Abraham Lincoln too; they were born within hours of each other).  Darwin, who I have previously blogged about here, ranks with Newton and Einstein as one of the most important scientists of all time.  So take a bit of time today to learn more about this extraordinary individual.

To humanize him and add some context and framework for his accomplishments, here is a brief time line of some notable events in Darwin’s life, which may contain some facts that you don’t yet know about the great naturalist:

12 February 1809: Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, the fifth of six children to physician Robert Darwin and Susannah (née Wedgwood) Darwin, the daughter of industrialist Josiah Wedgwood (1730- 1795).

1825–1828: Studies medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He joins the Plinian Society, a group for students interested in natural history. He gives up medicine because he can’t stand the sight of blood and 19th century surgery.

1828–1831: At his father’s urging, he begins preparing for a career in the clergy; he studies theology at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, in preparation for a career as a parish priest. He collects beetles and enrolls in a course run by Rev. John Stevens Henslow, professor of botany.

HMS Beagle surveying the coast of South America

HMS Beagle surveying the coast of South America

1831–1836: At the suggestion of Rev. Henslow, he accompanies Captain Robert FitzRoy (1805–1865), future admiral and Governor of New Zealand, on the second survey expedition of HMS Beagle as an unpaid naturalist. Originally planned to take two years, the five-year voyage takes him across the Atlantic to the southern part of South America, returning via Tahiti and Australia; the Falkland Islands, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Australia, New Zealand, Mauritius and South Africa featuring on his extensive itinerary. He observed the behavior of different plant and animal species, and analyzed his large collection of specimens for three months on his return.

1838: Moves to London and, once compiled, he begins publishing his findings in various papers and volumes.

1839: Journal and Remarks (later known as The Voyage of the Beagle) appears in print and he is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on 24 January. Five days later he marries his cousin Emma Wedgwood (1808–1896), the youngest of seven children to potter Josiah Wedgwood II (1769–1843), and his wife Bessy. They would have 10 children, two sadly dying in infancy. George, Francis and Horace became, respectively, an astronomer, botanist and civil engineer of repute. Charles and Emma were avid backgammon players; he faithfully records the results of their nightly games for many years.

1842: The Darwins move to Downe House in the village of Downe, Kent.  He does his theorizing in his home study, in part so he can be close to his children.  He publishes his first book on a specific subject, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs.

1853: He is awarded the Royal Society’s Gold Medal for his four volumes on barnacles.

1856: Darwin becomes aware of Alfred Russell Wallace’s theories on evolution and is persuaded to finally publish his work to establish priority.

1858: The outlines of his natural selection theories are jointly published alongside the similar theory proposed by Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society. His grandfather, scientist Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), was one of those who had already argued in favour of evolutionary ideas.

1859: His epic On the Origin of Species, a collection of evidence collected from the study of fossils, comparisons of anatomy and embryology, appears after more than 20 years in the making. It presents a theory in which living beings are related by common genealogical descent; discourses that life on earth adapts according to its environment; and offers views on such concepts as natural selection, adaptation and survival of the fittest.

1871: The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex is published; it links, in Part I, some of the ideas detailed in On the Origin of Species to the concept of human evolution, a topic already being discussed in detail by peers, and looks at the relationship between human sexes and races, responding to the thoughts and works of other writers in the process. In Part II and Part III, the book focuses on what he calls “sexual selection.”

1872: The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals is published; it looks at how humans and animals communicate their emotions.

1877: He is awarded an honorary degree from the University of Cambridge.

19 April 1882: He dies in Downe and is subsequently buried near Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey following one of only five state funerals given to a non-royal in the 19th century.

Darwin continued his research throughout his life and his work was not merely confined to the biological sciences.

The first evolutionary tree ever drawn, with the words "I think" written above it, from one of Darwin's notebooks

One of the first evolutionary trees ever drawn, with the words "I think" written above it, from one of Darwin's notebooks.*

His first specific-subject book, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, published in 1842, set out his theory—controversial for decades but later proven correct—of how atolls form, overturning the prevailing theories of his day.  His last work, published the year before he died, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Actions of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits, analyzed the role that worms play in soil creation.  His conclusions, once again, would be proven correct with time.

Darwin was a skilled writer and very effective at conveying his thoughts and ideas—and not just scientific ideas; his other works include interesting travelogues and an autobiography. Almost all of his writings, including some of the most speculative, have aged very well.

I cannot help including an example, and if it is a long one it is, I hope, a good one.  Consider the concluding paragraph to his best-known work, On the Origin of Species, which sums up with some degree of poetry the whole work:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

If you want to learn more about Charles Darwin’s early life and family life, along with the discoveries that led to his formation of the theory of evolution, I highly recommend the following hour-long video of a 2005 lecture by Sean Carroll, titled (not coincidentally) “Endless forms most beautiful.”

Carroll is a great lecturer and the video includes many slides and videos that I think will hold your attention if you have even the smallest bit of interest in the subject.

darwinbadgeFor more on the Charles Darwin, see the excellent series of articles that Wikipedia has covering his whole life.  For more on the theory of evolution, which is one of the most important and central in all of science, see their introduction to evolution and the somewhat more technical article on the theory itself.  Berkeley has a nice page with explanations of evolution, the importance of the theory, and the many forms of evidence on which it is based.

__________

* This post originally identified Darwin’s sketch as “the first evolutionary tree ever drawn.”  However, as commenter Zen Faulkes points out (see comments below), Jean Baptiste Lamarck had previously drawn a similar sketch. This blog regrets the error.

Advertisements

Happy birthday, Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln, about two weeks before giving the Gettysburg Address

Abraham Lincoln, about two weeks before giving the Gettysburg Address

Today is the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln (and of Charles Darwin too; they were born within hours of each other).  Given the bicentennial, it might be fitting and proper to explore some of Lincoln’s writings.

This blog has already shared the Gettysburg Address on another occasion; it is surely one of the greatest speeches ever given in the English language, and has few peers in any language.  His Second Inaugural Address (Wikipedia article, with text) is another excellent and short piece of oratory, and is highly recommended.  The peroration is a classic, and is probably familiar to many, even if they can’t place it:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

But many of Lincoln’s lesser-known speeches are likewise excellent.  To select just one, I highly recommend an address that he delivered in Milwaukee to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society on 30 September 1859.  The speech as a whole is most excellent, and the full text is available here, among other places.  The topic of the speech is progress, primarily technological, which in Lincoln’s day meant better plows, new fencing technology, railroads, canals, and the like.  Again, the peroration is excellent, and alone was worth any admission price:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride!—how consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away.” And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.

The above is a sentiment that I try to keep in mind.  I also try to remember what Lincoln wrote circa 1854 about the nature and purpose of government:

The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate and individual capacities.  In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, the government ought not to interfere.

A pre-beard Abraham Lincoln in 1846 or 1847

A pre-beard Abraham Lincoln in 1846 or 1847

Only John Stuart Mill has come close to so excellently summing up the raison d’être of government, and we’d be much better off if more shared the sentiment.  In that same fragment, Lincoln concludes “it appears that if all men were just, there would be some, though not so much need of government.” (Cf. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”—Federalist No. 51)  It is only with great regret that I omit the remainder of that item for purposes of space.

Another interesting short item contains Lincoln’s musing on slavery, again circa 1854, which seems to echo Kant’s categorical imperative, involving reasoning that can—and should—apply to far more than simply the peculiar institution:

If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B.—why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?—

You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.

You do not mean color exactly?—You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.

But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.

Finally, consider what is possibly the most extraordinary missive ever sent from a head of government to one of his generals in the field.  In a letter dated 26 January 1863, shortly after General Joseph Hooker was given the most important command in the army at a pivotal point in the Civil War, Lincoln addressed him as follows:

I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac.  Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons.  And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. … I hear, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain success, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. … Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.  Yours very truly

History shows that Hooker did not become dictator; despite being a good general, he didn’t live up to his potential as commander of the Army of the Potomac and was replaced by Gen. George Meade shortly before the Battle of Gettysburg.

In any event, I hope you will spend some time today to consider Abraham Lincoln’s accomplishments and what we each can do to achieve and cherish a just and lasting society, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Netanyahu wants to expand West Bank settlements

Former Prime Minister of Israel and current leader of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu says he will expand Israeli West Bank settlements if he becomes Prime Minister again after February 10th’s elections.  Based on current opinion polls, it appears likely that Netanyahu’s party, Likud, will secure a  plurality of seats in the Knesset and be able to form a government.

“I have no intention of building new settlements in the West Bank,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying. “But like all the governments there have been until now, I will have to meet the needs of natural growth in the population. I will not be able to choke the settlements.”

Israel’s West Bank settlements, constructed on land captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, are probably illegal under international law and are certainly a major obstacle to a lasting peace deal with the Palestinians.  It is therefore unfortunate that Netanyahu is willing to allow them to expand.

Settlement construction in the West Bank has been a key obstacle to peace talks over the years. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank as part of a future independent state that would also include the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. They say Israel’s settlements, now home to 280,000 people in the West Bank, make it increasingly difficult for them to establish a viable state.

Nearly all Israeli settlement construction over the past decade has taken place in existing West Bank communities. And Netanyahu’s positions do not significantly differ from outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has allowed construction in existing settlements to continue even while holding peace talks with the Palestinians.

The West Bank. Israeli settlements in purple, areas where Palestinian movement is restricted in pink.

The West Bank. Israeli settlements in purple, areas where Palestinian movement is restricted in pink.

The settlements (see Wikipedia article) are home to about 280,000 Israelis and make it harder to the Palestinians to form a viable state.  They also require significant security infrastructure due to violence against them from Palestinians.  While the violence is deplorable, the anger which motivates it is understandable—how would you feel if foreigners came into your country and effectively claimed permanently as their own by building cities there?  Also keep in mind that about 40% of the land on which the settlements are built is privately owned by (unremunuerated) Palestinians.  Additionally, it is not simply the land on which they sit that Palestinians are deprived of; the settlements effectively cut up the West Bank, making travel and transport through the area difficult.

There are a lot of passions involved with the Israeli-Palestinian situtation.  For a possibly less charged example of a similar sort of activity, consider the Chinese policy of trying to tightly wed Tibet, which they conquered militarily, to the People’s Republic by settling ethnic Chinese people there.

These settlements make Israel less secure, not more secure.  They are furthermore one of the biggest obstacles to peace, right up there with continued Palestinian violence.  They are increasingly costing Israelis the good will of their allies, including, quite possibly, the United States under the new Obama administration.

Kadima party leader and Prime Minister candidate Tzipi Livni has vowed to dismantle the settlements, if elected.  This blog very much hopes that she will get that chance.

An analysis of Israel’s strategic decision-making

8. The precise shade of blue is not specified.

The Flag of Israel, shown with the correct hight/width ratio of 11:8

Foreign Policy magazine has an interesting new piece out, “The myth of Israel’s strategic genius,” which attempts to analyze the wisdom of that nation’s strategic decisions since its founding.  The author, Stephen M. Walt, concludes that while Israel gets a lot of credit for making good decisions, its actions have not helped it achieve long-term security and, indeed, some, such as supporting Hamas in the 1980s, have done much to imperil the country.

The article looks at pretty much every major armed crisis involving Israel since the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, including the 1956 Suez Crisis, the 1967 Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and all the way up to the current Gaza action.

From the article’s conclusion:

In virtually all of these episodes — and especially those after 1982 — Israel’s superior military power was used in ways that did not improve its long-term strategic position. Given this dismal record, therefore, there is no reason to think that Israel possesses uniquely gifted strategists or a national security establishment that consistently makes smart and far-sighted choices. Indeed, what is perhaps most remarkable about Israel is how often the architects of these disasters — Barak, Olmert, Sharon, and maybe Netanyahu — are not banished from leadership roles but instead are given another opportunity to repeat their mistakes. Where is the accountability in the Israeli political system?

The moral of this story is that there is no reason to think that Israel always has well-conceived strategies for dealing with the problems that it faces.  In fact, Israel’s strategic judgment seems to have declined steadily since the 1970s — beginning with the 1982 invasion of Lebanon — perhaps because unconditional U.S. support has helped insulate Israel from some of the costs of its actions and made it easier for Israel to indulge strategic illusions and ideological pipe-dreams. Given this reality, there is no reason for Israel’s friends — both Jewish and gentile — to remain silent when it decides to pursue a foolish policy. And given that our “special relationship” with Israel means that the United States is invariably associated with Jerusalem’s actions, Americans should not hesitate to raise their voices to criticize Israel when it is acting in ways that are not in the U.S. national interest.

Those who refuse to criticize Israel even when it acts foolishly surely think they are helping the Jewish state. They are wrong. In fact, they are false friends, because their silence, or worse, their cheerleading, merely encourages Israel to continue potentially disastrous courses of action.  Israel could use some honest advice these days, and it would make eminently good sense if its closest ally were able to provide it. Ideally, this advice would come from the president, the secretary of state, and prominent members of Congress — speaking as openly as some politicians in other democracies do. But that’s unlikely to happen, because Israel’s supporters make it almost impossible for Washington to do anything but reflexively back Israel’s actions, whether they make sense or not. And they often do not these days.

Also touched on briefly are some of the failed peace initiatives, including the Camp David meetings presided over by Bill Clinton.  Unfortunately, the article doesn’t go into detail about the proposals and their perceived deficiencies.

The article additionally mentions the West Bank settlements.

More importantly, after seizing the West Bank, Golan Heights and Gaza Strip during the [Six Day] war, Israeli leaders decided to start building settlements and eventually incorporate them into a “greater Israel.” Thus, 1967 marks the beginning of Israel’s settlements project, a decision that even someone as sympathetic to Israel as Leon Wieseltier has described as “a moral and strategic blunder of historic proportions.” Remarkably, this momentous decision was never openly debated within the Israeli body politic.

As I blogged about previously, Israel’s West Bank settlements are a major obstacle to peace and should be dismantled immediately if Israel is interested in a workable, long-term peace deal.

Factual error in Obama’s inaugural address

Well, Obama was president for all of maybe seven minutes* before he made his first mistake, a factual error.  It came in the second paragraph of his inaugural address:

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.

Of course, we do need to remain faithful to the ideals of our forbearers and to our founding documents; and of course the oath of office has been taken amidst many circumstances.  However, it has not been taken by 44 Americans, despite the fact that Obama is the 44th president.

This man's defeat in the 1888 presidential election screwed up Obama's inaugural address

This man's defeat in the 1888 presidential election screwed up Obama's inaugural address

This is because, including Obama, only 43 people have held the office.  Why?  Because Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd and the 24th President of the United States, having served two non-consecutive terms—the only person, thus far, to do so.  C’mon, Barack, don’t be hatin’ on one of your predecessors.

The fact that Cleveland takes up two ordinals has some other consequences.  For instance, there will be two $1 coins minted for him in the Presidential Dollar Coin program (presumably with somewhat different designs, unless the mint just wants to be cheap).

Incidentally, Cleveland was a good president, according to the assessments of most historians.  He issued 414 vetoes, more than all other presidents up to that point combined and more than any other two-term president (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served just over three terms, vetoed 635 bills); only two bills were passed over Cleveland’s veto.  Over 200 of those vetoed bills concerned Civil War pensions for individual people, many of whom never even served in the military (one would have given a government pension at taxpayer expense to a man who fell off his horse on his way to enlist and so never served).

One further anecdote concerning Grover Cleveland may be informative.  In 1902 there was a serious strike of coal miners who wanted better working conditions.  But this was a serious threat to the country, which used coal in most of its industry and to heat many private homes in the winter.  President Theodore Roosevelt put together a commission to get the facts of the situation and wrote the following to his predecessor on 11 October of that year:

In all the country there is no man whose name would add such weight to this enquiry as would yours.  I earnestly beg you to say that you will accept.  I am well aware of the great strain I put upon you by making such a request.  I would not make it if I did not feel that the calamity now impending over our people may have consequences which without exaggeration are to be called terrible.

Cleveland replied “You rightly appreciate my reluctance to assume any public service. … [However,] I feel so deeply the gravity of the situation, and I so fully sympathize with you in your efforts to remedy present sad conditions, that I believe it is my duty to undertake the service.”

Cleveland’s only substantial savings were invested in the anthracite industry, and due to possible conflicts of interest, he had to sell those assets, which he did at the then-deflated prices.  However, Roosevelt never subsequently called upon him to serve on the planned commission.  It was an unfair way to treat a good man—much moreso than simply forgetting that he’d served two non-consecutive terms.

* Note that, under the Constitution, Obama took office at noon, even though he didn’t take the oath until about 12:05.  Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution just says that “Before he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation…” [emphasis added]; he still holds the office prior to that point, according to legal scholars.

Godspeed, Mr. President

I am setting this post to automatically be published at noon on the 20th of January 2009—at just about the moment when power transfers from George Walker Bush, the 43rd President of the United States, to Barack Hussein Obama, the 44th.  To our new Commander in Chief I have only this to say: Godspeed, Mr. President.

The official portrait of President Obama

The official portrait of President Obama

Vice President Biden will be sworn in first, just before noon.  And then Obama will take the Constitutionally mandated oath of office; he will follow tradition and use his full name: Barack Hussein Obama, contrary to some reports (and the official programs) which said he’d only use his middle initial.  Then after a 21-gun salute and “Hail to the Chief” he’ll delivery his inaugural address.

To commemorate the event, here are the actual words to “Hail to the Chief“, which are only very rarely sung:

Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation,
Hail to the Chief! We salute him, one and all.
Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation
In proud fulfillment of a great, noble call.
Yours is the aim to make this grand country grander,
This you will do, that’s our strong, firm belief.
Hail to the one we selected as commander,
Hail to the President! Hail to the Chief!

In terms of patriotic music, it’s not bad; but I do see why it’s not often sung.

In the movie My Fellow Americans, two ex-Presidents played by Jack Lemmon and James Garner discuss their annoyance at hearing the song played wherever they would go. Apparently unaware that it really does have lyrics, they both admit they made up their own lyrics in their head and imagined them whenever hearing the tune.  I would imagine that the real president is at least aware that it has lyrics, even if he doesn’t know them by heart.  I also don’t think he ever gets tired of hearing the tune.  (Though Gerald Ford had the Marine Corps marching band play the fight sonf of his alma mater, the University of Michigan, in lieu of “Hail to the Chief.”)

Anyway, all the best, Barack.

Obama to use Lincoln Bible for swearing-in

President-elect Barack Obama will use the same Bible for his swearing-in as the prior president from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln.  The Bible is held by the Library of Congress who will make it available for the January 20th inauguration.  No president since our 16th has used this particular Bible, which is burgundy velvet with gilded edges; it was published in 1853 by Oxford University Press.  It was a by William Thomas Carroll, the clerk of the Supreme Court, specifically for Lincoln’s inauguration; the Lincoln family Bible was unavailable for the event as it was still packed away with the family’s other possessions.

People know more about American Idol than about America

Since Paula Abdul is not in this picture, most Americans probably have no idea what is going on.

Since Paula Abdul is not in this picture, most Americans probably have no idea what is going on here.

Most Americans—56% to be precise—know that Paula Abdul is a judge on American Idol, but less than half can name the three branches of their government, according to a study administered by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the University of Connecticut.  It also found that only 27% of us could correctly identify what the First Amendment explicitly proscribes—and these were multiple choice questions (20% chance just by guessing). 

You can take the 33-question quiz for yourself here.  Hopefully all readers of this blog get the 7th question correct.

High school graduates averaged 44% correct; college graduates did only slightly better, 57%—getting one more question right for each year of higher education.  The quiz was given to 2000 Americans this past spring and only 29% received what would be a passing mark on it.  Amazingly, elected officials actually scored lower than the general public.

Politicians … scored five points lower than the Average Joe, a performance that former Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok labeled “abysmal and alarming.”
 
— Seventy-nine (79) percent of elected officeholders did not know that the Bill of Rights expressly forbids the government establishing an official religion for the U.S.
 
— A large number (43 percent) of politicians did not know what the Electoral College does.
 
Only 32 percent of politicians can actually define what the free-enterprise system is – even though many of them may have campaigned for office pledging to defend it.

I’m guessing that most of those politicians were local officials and not national figures, though I could be wrong.  Anyway, why should we expect our officials to know what they’re doing when we don’t?  You get the government you deserve.

Further information on the study is available at http://www.americancivicliteracy.org

Gettysburg Address is 145 years old today

The only known picture of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg

The only known picture of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, taken about three hours before he spoke

Seven score and five years ago today, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, one of the greatest speeches ever given by anyone in any language.  Ironically, it includes the line “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” which has been proven quite untrue.

Wikipedia has an excellent article on the Address, with many facts that you’re probably not aware of.  Or if you’re in the mood to celebrate the Gettysburg Address with some fun, Sporcle has a fun game where you can see if you know all the words to the famous speech!  Or you can just read them here:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The words to the Address are carved into the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial’s interior; the north wall bears extracts from his Second Inaugural Address, a speech which exceeds almost any other given by an American President—except for the Gettysburg Address.

Veterans/Armistice/Remembrance Day

Joseph Ambrose, an 86-year-old World War I veteran, attends the dedication day parade for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  He is holding the flag that covered the casket of his son, who was killed in the Korean War.

Joseph Ambrose, an 86-year-old World War I veteran, at the 1982 dedication day parade for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He is holding the flag that covered the casket of his son, who was killed in the Korean War.

Today, 11 November 2008, is the 90th anniversary of the conclusion of World War I.  The conflict, sometimes called “the Great War”, resulted in the deaths of over 20 million people—about 9.7 million of them military personnel and about 10 million of them civilians.  An additional 21 million people were wounded. 

November 11th is now commemorated as  Veterans Day in the United States, Remembrance Day in Canada, and Armistice Day in much of the rest of the world. Initially, the day honored only those who served in WWI; after WWII (unfortunately, the First World War was not, in fact, “the war to end all wars”) it was expanded to cover all veterans.  Today there are approximately 25 million veterans in the United States.  In their honor, I would like to observe a Canadian tradition; each year they mark Remembrance Day with readings of John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields.”

Lt. Colonel John McCrae was a Canadian physician who served in World War I and wrote the following poem on 3 May 1915, after he witnessed the gruesome death of his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, the day before. First published on December 7 of that year in Punch magazine, the poem is extremely well known in Canada; in addition to being read there each year on Remembrance Day the first of it’s three stanzas is on the Canadian $10 bill.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

McCrae died on 28 January 1918 of pneumonia and meningitis that he contracted while commanding the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne.  He was buried with full honors at the Wimereaux Cemetery, located a few miles from his last post.

War is hell, as one veteran very truly put it.  If you know a veteran, or if you just encounter one today, thank him or her; and remember that this need not only be done on November 11th.  And if you are a veteran reading this: thanks.