A little known history

American Creation, Joseph J. Ellis, 2007

Indians being the prior occupants of the rights of the soil. . . To dispossess them . . .would be a gross violation of the fundamental Laws of Nature and of that distributive Justice which is the glory of a nation.”  Henry Knox,  Secretary of War

A Boston bookseller, Henry Knox became principal aide to General Washington in the revolutionary war. As Secretary of War in the new nation, he faced open warfare with Ohio tribes and others throughout the lands westward to the Mississippi. The American victory ‘triggered a tidal wave of western migration” of white settlers across the Appalachian Mountains. Individual states were writing treaties, knowingly to be violated, with the intention of completely displacing all Indians to the west, beyond the Mississippi. American citizens overwhelmingly favored removal.

Knox and Washington resolved to honor the nation’s founding republican principles.  To do otherwise, Washington said, would “stain the nation”. To this end, they declared the Indian tribes to be foreign nations, which placed Indian policy under the federal government. Their plan was to enter into treaties negotiated “on principles consistent with the national justice and dignity of the United States“.  They envisioned protected enclaves, protected by American troops, which American settlers would bypass. The Indians would be trained and equipped to learn and practice farming, for an evolution to a more ‘civilized status’ and eventual assimilation as new states.  This was a vision of humane coexistence and aid, bold and unprecedented for a new national power.

The first – and last –  such treaty was accomplished with the Creek Nation, a very large confederacy of tribes in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi.  Their powerful chief, Alexander McGillivray, was a very successful Indian leader who was part Scotsman, part French, and part Creek, and he spoke Creek, English, and Spanish. He was treated, in New York, then the capital of the United States, to all the pomp and circumstance that would have greeted a royal European head of state.  He was a guest in Henry Knox’s home.

McGillivray was a realist, he did not expect the United States to endure, and saw himself more powerful, in his lands, than the United States government, and he kept ties with the Spanish, with whom he traded in Florida. Much of his land had just been sold, however, to settlers by the Georgia legislature, a move he was eager to block, and Washington was also determined to stop. And so the Treaty of New York was signed and passed by the Senate in August of 1790.  It gave sovereignty to the huge Creek Nation, and guaranteed federal troop protection of its borders.

It was not to hold.  Settlers streamed into the Creek lands. The new nation did not have the federal troops or resources to protect the vast borders. Like elsewhere and throughout history, farmers overwhelmed hunters.

Scarcely anything short of a Chinese wall will restrain the Land jobbers and the encroachment of settlers up on the Indian Country”  George Washington.

Iron Lady

Absence of Mind, Dispelling of inwardness from the modern myth of the Self,  Marilynne Robinson, 2010.

“But there is a fact of modern history, and there is the fact that intellectuals, renowned in their time, made significant contributions to the worst of it.

So speaks the literary mind, author of the novel, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson, across C.P.Snow’s divide between the two cultures – science and the humanities – to the illustrious “parascientific” priests of modern atheism: Dennett, Wilson, Dawkins, Harris, and others.  In her Yale Terry Lectures, she  speaks of her concern for the modern scientific dismissal of human subjectivity – the human soul – that is so increasingly entrenched, and unacknowledged, in the pontifications of these august thinkers.

The brain and its satellite glands have now been probed to the point where no particular site remains that can reasonably be supposed to harbor a non-physical brain.”  E. O. Wilson

She finds these pronouncements to be breezy and deft, but unsubstantiated and conjectural, and indeed not very scientific. Parascience, she calls this, a sort of science fundamentalism. You could learn something from the best of religious thought, she tells them:  Respect what you cannot know.

From antiquity, insistance on the ontological unlikeness of God to the categories to which the human mind has recourse is at the center of theological reflection.”

gravity, light, or time . . . are sufficient to persuade me that conclusions about the ultimate nature of things are, to say the least, premature, and that to suggest otherwise is unscientific.”  Harper’s Magazine, 2006.

Robinson notes that despite the true and profound biological origins of the human mind that are rooted in the drives for survival and for reproduction, the subjective human mind still is what it does, and what it does is have emotions, and aspirations, and seeks knowledge, and wonder, and develops culture, and art, and social cooperation, all with a capacity that can’t be explained.

there is that haunting compatibility of our means of knowing, with the universe of things to be known.”

Conscious subjectivity is substantially who and what we are, and has consequences that can’t be denied.

For Robinson, this growing arrogance of modern science – that everything that has come before is wrong, that subjectivity is not central – is as dogmatic and authoritarian as the religions they decry.  Morality is nothing if not respect for the subjectivity of individuals.

She wants science to see its own active role in fostering tribalism and violence in human history.  “if there is a special virtue in the scientific perspective, why do the worst regimes have so little trouble recruiting the best scientists?” She reminds us that Huxley, the great Darwin champion, was eugenicist, that the abolitionists were christians, and that the Amish fundamentalists – who don’t teach evolution – are very ‘green’ and are pacificists!

Mental Engineering

“The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.  The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things.”

Robert M. Pirsig,  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 1974

This book came from nowhere and was a sensation in its time. It is about someone who was really smart, who somehow lost his mental bearings, and now is on a motorcycle journey, haunted, retracing his former lost self, trying to understand it all.  He is with his son, who, like a ghost of his father, is having his own mental trouble.

Mental illness is about confusing what is “out there” and what is “in here”. We try to keep our mental selves – our motorcycles – running smoothly, despite the confusing differences of others, and the unpredictability of our engines.

There are objects and events, like rocks and rainfall, and there are attributes, like tall, short, and long. Some minds see the thing, some minds, the idea-of-the- thing. These different kinds of minds often don’t get along, and the author has been bothered by this.  He can see both things and ideas of things, and wants to clarify, and in the process, heal.

In his former self, his eccentric path – he started in science, then had a sojourn in India, and then returned to study philosophy – led him to discover a little known voice in the Socratic dialogues of Plato, Phaedrus. Phaedrus, it seems, unlike Socrates, sensed that we know things, without knowing how we know them, and without having learned them. Socrates and Plato wouldn’t listen, you see, and the rest is history, including the human creation of inhumane technology.

Pirsig found that in his teaching of technical writing, his job before his mental breakdown, his students unfailingly could recognize good writing when they heard it, without being taught its attributes, and whether they could write well themselves or not.  He also found that experiencing good writing helped them become better writers.

Good writing had something he decided to call ‘Quality’.  He discovered that this ‘quality’ can not be defined. This created an epiphany – here was a truth, knowable and yet undefinable, a mystical reality. Further, this aspect of good writing could be found in the good of all things – art, philosophy, and technology. Pirsig came to believe that holding this mental category, this category of the knowable unknown, powerfully enhanced one’s intellectual, emotional, and even scientific understanding, much like holding the category zero – the something that is nothing – powerfully advances mathematics. For him, it seemed to be the path to a unification of thinking and feeling, reason and intuition, technology and humanism, the synthesis prior to all dualities, the Tao of the ancient oriental sages.  He discovered, in his own way, the perennial philosophy, . . . and it gave him ideaphoric mania.

He see’s it all now, on this journey.  Ideas and attributes are wonderful and powerful, they can design a motorcycle, but it still requires maintenance.

Founding Mystic

Transcendentalism, n. 1. the philosophy that proposes to discover the nature of reality by investigating the process of thought rather than the objects of sense experience. . . Webster’s Unabridged

Emerson, The Mind on Fire, Robert D. Richardson, Jr.  1995

Scales and chords. For Ralph Waldo Emerson, it was words and sentences.  He was a prose artist, and his practice was journal writing.  He sought the artistic experience of using a crafted skill to achieve meaning in expression.

Emerson was, like Immanual Kant, disturbed by skepticism, the philosophy of David Hume that says that we can’t really know what we know, that causality itself can’t be proven, that all thinking derives from sense perception, that no inductions can have the force of certainty, that the self is illusory. Emerson believed in the validity of intuition, the truth of what can be sensed from self-awareness in parallel with awareness of the world. One’s mind is made by nature, one’s mind is valid. Live, look, and see. From one’s full experience, one can know all that there is. “The whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.”  “My own mind is the direct revelation I have from God .”

Unwittingly, he affirmed the American political vision, in the mystical realm. “The highest revelation is that God is in every man.

He was well aware of the pitfalls, the draw of sophistry, of experts, of the easy, shallow path.  “It is easy to live for others, everybody does.  I call on you to live for yourselves . . .”  Follow your mind, but watch your step.  “When you write do not omit the thing you meant to say“.

Writing was self-actualization, his steadied stepping along a true path.  He was after first impressions, not second thoughts.  “For the best part . . of every mind is not that which a person knows, but that which hovers in gleams, suggestions, tantalizing unpossessed before him”. He recorded dreams. He cultivated flow. “The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent“.  Don’t fret for that hobgoblin: consistency.

I will no longer confer, differ, refer, defer, prefer, or suffer

In his relentless exploration of words and sentences, as he journeyed and journaled his own mind, Emerson learned to know what words can’t say, and what mystics always discover:  that there is thinking, and there is knowing, and they are not the same. In carefully perceiving what is, and listening to what one thinks – in this mysterious interplay of sensing and thinking -Emerson came to sense the nameless, universal essence of the world.  And so can we all.  Self Reliance.

Emerson grasped that nature self-registers. The active mind vivifies the attributes and forms and living magic of beauty, love, time, and eternity. All individuals, then, can be gods, in this way, creators of the world.  And for Emerson, that is the way to live.

Nowhere Man

John Lennon, The Life Philip Norman, 2008

I read the news today, oh boy

About a lucky man who made the grade

And though the news was rather sad

Well I just had to laugh

I saw the photograph

He blew his mind out in a car

He didn’t notice that the lights had changed

A crowd of people stood and stared

They’d seen his face before

People differ in their need for stimulation.  There is the nerdy kid who can’t tolerate a rolling coaster ride or a scary movie, and there is the test-the-limits thrill seeker like John Lennon.

John Lennon relentlessly sought sensation, and defiant self expression.   He got himself into trouble, all the time, and pulled others into trouble with him.  Paul McCartney’s father called him “that Lennon”. He was precocious – with drinking, with drugs, with sex. He was also intelligent, and artistic. He liked imaginative writing, had a talent for music, and a sense for authentic, emotional expression. He took the time to learn the craft of playing guitar, writing songs, and singing, and he became very good.  Rock and roll was it, he went crazy for Elvis Presley. Listen to Elvis in ‘Trying to get to you’, you will hear the Lennon inspiration.

I was a rhythm guitarist. . . I can make a band drive” . . He rejected any aesthetic of thinking – “that excellentness which I never believed in“.  He disliked Paul’s literary songs.  “I go for feeling“.

He could also be mean. He truly was “a jealous guy“, ever fearful of being up-staged.  He was quick with the verbal put down, and created bully loyalty. He could be violent with alcohol. But he was also an engine for success. He was bold and could drive a crowd.  He could be endearing and needy and funny. Women were drawn to want to care for him.

He suffered boredom like some ghastly memory, and seemed haunted by loss.  As he achieved phenomenal success, he found himself maddingly unsatisfied.  There is a pained disappointment in his best songs.  He was just not able to find peace of mind. He descended into out-of-control pill taking, drinking, marijuana, LSD, and heroin. When Yoko first met him, she found he would wake up and take “handfuls of pills”.

His recklessness cost Lennon/McCarthy ownership of many of their songs.  He betrayed friends and mentors – Brian Epstein, George Martin, and sadly, Paul.  His interviews have blame, special pleading, and self pity.  He would both decry fame and stoke it.  Being lionized while feeling empty made him cynical.

Who was John Lennon?  Creative, engaging, and appealing, but also disturbed, difficult and ultimately tragic.  He could not achieve inner reward.  For someone fantastically famous and wealthy, one of the luckiest people on the planet, he was unfulfilled.

He’s a real Nowhere Man

Sitting in his nowhere land

Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

Doesn’t have a point of view

Knows not where he’s going to

Isn’t he a bit like you and me?


The Strange Case of Lee Harvey Oswald

Sen. Russell Long (D-La.) has told us that Lee Harvey Oswald. . . trained with Castro revolutionaries in Minsk during his Soviet stay” Jack Anderson, Washington Post, March 7, 1967

Ion Mihai Pocera defected to the West in 1978.  He was head of Communist Romania’s foreign intelligence service, and was responsible for recruiting foreigners – particularly disaffected, low rank American soldiers like Lee Harvey Oswald.  In Programmed to kill:  Lee Harvey Oswald, the Soviet KGB, and the Kennedy Assassination, 2007, he finds that the Oswald story has very strong signs of Soviet Foreign Intelligence involvement.

Procera proposes that Oswald was likely recruited while stationed at the U-2 Atsugi base, and that Oswald’s information was instrumental in shooting down U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, which resulted in a great PR triumph for Khrushchev. This made Oswald a hero to Soviet foreign intelligence and his visit to the Soviet Union was likely his reward (this being a common practice).  They wouldn’t have wanted him to stay, his cover would be suspect and he would be more useful in the U.S., but he forced them to acquiesce – ever the loose canon – by publicly revoking his U. S. citizenship at the U.S. embassy in Moscow.  While living in Russia, he received extensive espionage training, and was then sent back to the U.S. with an arranged Russian agent wife (another common practice), to function (both of them) as sleeper agents in the U.S.

Pocera doesn’t believe that the Soviet Union ordered Oswald to murder President Kennedy, but he emphasizes that Oswald was a difficult, restless agent, a true believer wanting more heroic work, who became more and more intent on getting into ‘revolutionary’ Cuba.  He spun out of control, and possibly into the hands of pro-Castro Cuban agents (whom he met in Minsk?) working in the U.S. Oswald was both deluded enough to allow himself to be lured into shooting Kennedy in order to help Cuba, and gullible enough to allow himself to be set up to play the patsy role in a plot. Adult fetal alcohol syndrome?

Before November 22, Oswald mysteriously does pro-Castro advocacy, and then also mingles with anti-Castro Cubans.  He visits Soviet and Cuban embassies in Mexico.  He carries out noticeable and self-incriminating actions – shooting practices, meeting prominent Cuban exiles, hinting at planned assassination, seeking to buy a get-a-way car.

Lee Harvey Oswald was the only employee of the Texas School Book Depository not accounted for during time the shots were fired.

After the shooting, he seems to improvise an escape from the scene, as if a planned meeting doesn’t occur.  He returns to his apartment for his gun – he must have thought he wouldn’t need it, but now clearly thinks that he may.  He seems to head in the direction of a small airport nearby, or to a bus station to take him to Mexico (he had made that same bus trip one month before).  He calmly murders Dallas police officer Tippett, who alone has threatened his movements. He brazenly re-loads his gun in front of numerous eye witnesses.

Napoleon in Egypt

Mirage, Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt, Nina Burleigh, Harper Perennial, 2008

Napoleon Bonaparte was more than just a celebrated man, he was the nearest thing to a rock star the late eighteenth century would see.”

In 1798, just before Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on their exploration of the American West and their encounter with primordial, paleolithic humanity, Napoleon Bonaparte set off for Egypt and an encounter with primordial, ancient civilization.  Ever the narcissist, Napoleon saw himself as the new Alexander the Great.  He had conquered continental Europe, and now sought empire in the East to counter England, which he couldn’t oppose on the open sea.   No European had been to the Middle East since the crusades.  Ruthless and romantic, a dreamer both inspiring and callous to his followers, Napoleon blundered his way across Egypt and into Syria, finding an Ottoman world, magnificent ancient ruins, and the Rosetta Stone.

Like Apollo to the moon,  Napoleon’s expedition not only explored, but made deliberate study of its destination. Napoleon brought scientists, 150 of the best scientists of France.  They studied, travelled, catalogued, and made drawings of fantastic ancient ruins that were covered with the mysterious hieroglyphics, many of them filled with sand, used as garbage dumps by the local people.  They spoke with Islamic followers about life diversity,  and the origins of the world.  They found, first hand, the temple of Isis on the island of Philae as the uppermost Nile reaches Nubia, now removed as the island is under the water from the Aswan dam. They discovered the colossi of Memnon statues at Thebes, which ‘moan’ as the sun rises.  They found the intact Zodiac base relief ceiling at Dendara, made during the time of the Greeks, and the great temple of Hathor. They suffered the plague, and a near-blinding eye infection called ophthalmia.  They created modern archeology.

stuck dumb by the combination of silver moonlight on the desert, the black, whispering river, and the sudden, towering shadows of temples and columns”

They suffered most the self-centered whim, and reckless, impulsive leadership of Napoleon.  He promptly lost his navy to the British, by surpise, in the Battle of Abukir Bay, while mooring at Alexandria.  He led his army to needless defeat in the Syrian campaign.  In the failed siege of Acre, he ordered euthanasia for the dying and retreating French soldiers.  At Jaffa, he ordered the murder of 4000 Turkish prisoners. As news arrived of France in trouble and Italy lost, Napoleon slipped away with a small group back to France, leaving the others to fend for themselves.  A shrewd publicist, he regaled his deeds in Egypt before the others could return. He eventually became Emperor.

Of 34000 land troops who sailed to Egypt with Napoleon, 21,500 returned alive.  Among the survivors were 3,000 sick and maimed.  Out of the expedition’s 16,000 sailors, only 1,866 – barely one in nine- are known to have returned to France.

For Profit

In Basic Economics, Thomas Sowell provides a clear treatment of the economic principles that underlie capitalist economics.  First he explains the fundamental mechanisms of capitalism, then he shows how even educated people tend to misunderstand these basic concepts. This book is not just an introductory course in economics, it is an explanation of its counter-intuitive logic.

As Sowell defines it:

Economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources that have alternative uses.

that have alternative uses” – that is the key. Most people understand that capitalism is driven by profits. Producers are motivated to create companies and sell products because they can retain the difference between production costs and the price the customer pays.  And customers will pay a higher price for products that are more valuable to them. That is simple enough. But Sowell explains further that producers compete with each other for inputs, the materials needed to make their products.  To maximize profit, producers seek the lowest possible input costs, and so they use inputs, whenever possible, with the least valuable alternative use.  They are less in demand and therefore lower in cost. This creates efficiency in the utilization of resources. The profit motive thus drives the match of  the value of resources with the value the customer seeks.  More valuable resources get used to produce what customers value most.

There is an all-to-common characterization of profit as a selfish cheating of the customer, motivated by ‘greed’.  With Dr. Sowell’s reasoning, profit is a moral pursuit. A business that does not earn profit is needlessly employing scarce resources that could be used more effectively in some other way.  The story of profit capitalism, then, is products being made the same or better, but with less resource inputsdoing more with less. A firm either produces a higher quality product using the same cost of inputs, or makes the same product using lower cost inputs.  Resources get utilized efficiently, desired products are produced, needs are satisfied, fortunes are made, and wealth is created.  And all with price and profit, not control and coercion.

Sowell is frustrated that the advantages that drive a capitalist economy are strangely dismissed, often, by the very people who enjoy its fruits.  The failures of controlled economies should drive us to embrace the benefits of capitalist economics and profit.

The trend of the last century is encouraging:

The twentieth century began with high hopes for replacing the competition of the marketplace by a more efficient and more humane economy, planned and controlled by government in the interests of the people…But the most decisive evidence for the efficiency of the marketplace was that even those who were philosophically opposed to capitalism turned back toward it after seeing what happens when industry and commerce operate without the guidance of prices, profits and losses.


The Strangest Man

The Strangest Man, by Graham Farmelo

This biography of Paul Dirac, the Nobel winning British physicist who pioneered quantum mechanics, is foremost a mental biography. It is the story of an intuitive, mathematical mind that, using abstract thinking alone, correctly predicted the existence of anti-matter. He did no experiments.

The author chronicles Dirac’s social behavior, his impact on others, his emotional blindness, his insistence on mathematical and theoretic purity.  Farmelo makes the case that Paul Dirac had Asperger syndrome, a form of autism.  He was mathematically brilliant, but lacked social intelligence –  the ability to ‘read’ other people as the complex emotional beings that they are, which is the hallmark of Asperger syndrome.  Weak social intelligence can seem like callousness.  Dirac’s lack of personal connection seemed to be on purpose, and people were offended and would think him mean. When someone like Dirac is also known to be very smart, what else can explain his manner? Dirac just did not give the personal regard that people seek. He did marry and have children, but his wife came to be very frustrated, and his children did not fare well. He loved watching Cher, but had no other interest in music.

People like Dirac can seem to be like sociopaths, but poor social intelligence is not sociopathy.  Sociopaths often have a very strong social intelligence, indeed a powerful ability to understand what others are feeling, what others want. This is what makes them often skillful manipulators. Their lack of empathy allows them to avoid guilt as they use others. They can convey warmth and concern, all the while acting viciously.

This was not Dirac.  He could eventually understand people, after using deliberate and careful perception, logic and analysis.  And when he did, he could be caring and loyal.

His contributions to physics were substantial.  He solved many of the important issues of early quantum mechanics, and won a Nobel Prize, but his later years were not very productive. He insisted on abstract mathematical beauty and was unable or unwilling to engage the rough promise of new experimental results.

Social intelligence uses a great amount of mental capacity, and may be the chief reason our brain’s evolved so large.  Weak social mentation can liberate other mental talents, free up ‘disc space’ for other types of mentation, such as visual or spatial thinking.  This is the story of the savant, of people like Dirac.

Dirac was lucky to arrive in Niels Bohr’s time. Bohr’s genius was leadership.  He had a great managerial intelligence, even though he was a clumsy speaker and writer. He and his loving and intelligent wife fostered an intensely supportive environment for gifted and varied personalities, some with social intelligence and empathy, and some without, Nobel minds like Schroedinger, Einstein, Pauli, Dirac, and Heisenberg. Even Bohr’s son would eventually win a Nobel Prize.

Under Bohr, these great minds unravelled, in a short few years, the mysteries of chemistry and nuclear forces and brought human knowledge to the very edge of what is knowable, a place we have yet to surpass.

Leonardo from Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci, The flights of the Mind, Charles Nicholl, Penguin Books, 2005.

During his lifetime, Leonardo da Vinci was not considered the greatest visual artist of all time.  No, his personal lot was difficult, and endlessly trying.   He was an illegitimate son, a homosexual, a genius without peer, and always dependent for financial support on petty, vain, narrow-minded, and falsely pious rich men of medieval Italy.  He suffered fools continually.

A genius can’t really know what non-genius is like, and so life is puzzling, other people are baffling. The genius feels oppressively different and lonely and can be driven to seek expression, if not in this life, then for in the future.   This is how it was for Leonardo.  His work speaks to us 500 years later. His genius was visual, as Mozart’s was sound, his creativity futuristic, astonishing the world to this day.

“My advice is not to trouble yourself with words unless you are speaking to the blind.”

Three paintings:  The Lady with an Ermine, La Belle Ferronniere, and Mona Lisa are exquisite masterpieces. Leonardo presents his subjects radiant, unposed, mysteriously bemused, elegant, and subtly but powerfully defiant. We look at them, and they look at us.  We sense that they are unmistakenly people, individuals with thoughts, and hurts, and hopes, individuals who have a story.  There is a feeling of intrigue, something has happened. Leonardo doesn’t just capture pose, and clothing, and expression, he captures mentation, one can feel them thinking.  And they have dignity. Leonardo feels for them, and wants us see and feel for them also.  They are prisoners of sorts, sexual prisoners, sold into marriage by their families, to rich, older men.  They are confined – perhaps like him – by sexuality, the circumstances of the times, by the mediocrity of the powerful.  And so, too, with his Jesus. In The Last Supper, his Jesus is a person, not an icon.  This Jesus has resignation, disappointment, regrets, friends, and human needs, and is resigned to being misunderstood.

Leonardo’s paintings are astonishingly few. Late in life he regrets this, yet one senses that an element of purpose limited his output.  A subtle protest, perhaps, as if he felt it a blasphemy to give his artistic gifts over to the despicable, undeserving wealthy.  He was most proud of his work on medical illustrations, created from laborious dissections of human cadavers, carried out in the hospitals full of the unpretentious, common humanity.  He hoped to aid medical knowledge and treatment. This was his way to contribute his talents to the deserving.

Leonardo sensed the mystical in visual experience.

“Observe the flame of a candle and consider its beauty.  Blink your eye and look at it again.  What you see now was not there before, and what was there before is not there now.  Who is it who rekindles this flame which is always dying?”