Racism, Private Property and Exploitation

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The American Civil War was a huge outburst of violence, and may be the most important part of our history. It’s often thought to have been a war to free slaves, but the Emancipation Proclamation was a product of the war, not the reason it began.
There was tension between North and South from the beginning of this country’s independence from Britain. Part of the reason was slavery, though that wasn’t the whole story. It was obviously inconsistent to allow slavery to continue to be legal in light of the ideals expressed by the rebellious Americans: the rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, but the North needed the South to help defend against Britain or anyone else trying to conquer or reconquer the country. So slavery was accepted and southern landowners were given credit for a fraction of a vote for each slave they owned. This helps explain why so many of the earlier presidents were Southern, and why so few of the later ones were.
It’s also notable how defensive the South was about slavery. About 1830 an arrangement was made in Congress that any proposal concerning slavery would be accepted by the body, but not considered. Why were Southerners so afraid? I would suggest that on some level they knew slavery to be wrong, and were afraid of punishment, which they feared might come from the North.
I read a two volume history of the politics leading up to the war a couple of years ago (titles and author unfortunately forgotten at this moment) that talked about how Southern large landowners liked to consider that their slaves were family, but that this was belied by their reactions whenever rumors reached them about possible rebellions among slaves. Anyone thought to be a leader of such action was tortured and/or killed, which is not the way most people treat members of their families.
Northerners, on the other hand, also resented the South, feeling that Southerners were trying to dictate to them, in the same way they dictated to their slaves. This explanation may or may not be essentially true, but is probably oversimplified.
A recent column, Conviction Politician, by Michael Gerson, has an interesting perspective. He writes about an aide of Rand Paul’s, Jack Hunter, who reportedly celebrates John Wilkes Booth’s birthday each year, compares Abraham Lincon to Saddam Hussein, and is thoroughly against any coercive Federal power, while being altogether for property rights.
They have a point in that, as I understand it, the Constitution guaranteed the rights of states to withdraw from the federation of the United States if they wanted to. If that was the case, why did President Lincoln allow them to do so peacefully? I receive a newsletter from a group that recommends investments, but also comments somewhat on politics. One opinion there expressed was that money was a big factor. There was no income tax in those days, so most of federal income was from taxes on goods passing into and out of the country at the various ports. The gentleman says that Southern ports were then more prosperous, so that Lincoln wanted to keep the income they generated. Money does often have to do with political decisions, so that’s not implausible. Whether it’s the whole story is another question.
It seems that Ron Paul and others of his group consider the Civil War to have been “unnecessary”, and Lincoln to have been an “iron-fisted tyrant”. They oppose the idea of the Federal union as being dedicated to the civil rights of all citizens, which Gerson says has been the general direction of the expansion of Federal power in the last 150 years. They also dislike war, and generally disapprove of the government’s use of power since World War II, also considering the War on Terror as an expression of militarism and imperialism.
I also dislike war, and don’t have a very good opinion about the War on Terror. But it struck me forcibly that had the Northern proponents of the Union let the Confederacy withdraw and form its own government, anyone reading this essay might either be a property-owner or property. It’s only been 150 years since slavery became illegal, but that realization gives me a strange feeling. It also seems that Paul’s brand of Libertarianism is for liberty–but not for everyone.
I think the whole concept of property rights may underlie the point of view of the Pauls and those who agree with them. We tend to think of property, whether in the form of land, money or other things as a universal human desire. Certainly the desire for property is one of the things that made Communism unsuccessful. Those at the bottom of that society (I’m thinking particularly of the USSR) wanted property, but so did those at the top. They paid lip-service to the ideal of a society owning all things in common, but human nature prevented that from happening.
But not all societies have seen things that way. I acquired a poster of what Chief Sealth replied to President Franklin Pierce on Pierce’s offer to buy the land of Chief Sealth’s people, which seems to have been in the northwest of this country, the name Seattle apparently having been derived from the chief’s name. The Chief had difficulty with the very idea that people could own land. He saw the land as belonging to God, not to people, and that any mistreatment of the land would rebound on whoever perpetrated that, because all of us are connected to each other, to the earth, and all the other inhabitants of the earth.
If that view is valid, then there’s something wrong with the idea of whole idea of private property, and that wrongness is underlined by the idea of people being private property. Of course there have always been slaves, for as much of human history as we know, but the concept of slavery also changed with the discovery of the New World and the beginning of its exploitation.
In ancient times slavery had little or nothing to do with race. Slaves were often captives of war, though people could also sell their children or even themselves into slavery. There was certainly xenophobia in the ancient world–Greeks called anyone who wasn’t Greek a barbarian–but racism as we know it today is a relatively recent development.
James Carroll, who wrote a history of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jews, saw the beginning of racism with the Conversos
of Spain. These were Jewish families who had become very important, and had married into important Spanish families. Their doing so was a reaction to the habit of Spanish Christians of kidnapping Jewish children and raising them as Christian. Jewish families so feared this that they would sometimes kill their own children to prevent it happening. But one of the important Jewish philosophers suggested that this was unnecessary: Go ahead and convert, and then worship in the way you prefer at home.
But when Spanish Christians found out about this practice they saw it as treasonous, and used the Inquisition to find out if supposed Christians were actually following Jewish religious observances. If Carroll was correct, this was the beginning of a very sordid era.
In the United States slavery became equated with race, and the very idea of equality of races and any sort of egalitarian intercourse between them became horrifying, probably to most. If the Civil War had been fought for the benefit of the slaves, it’s noteworthy that the slaves didn’t do very well out of it. Most Northerners didn’t care any more for dark-skinned people that most Southerners. Some ideas seem to be pathogenic, and racism seems to be one of the most important.
Michael Gerson, in his column about Rand Paul, suggests that Paul can’t simply disavow the views of his aide because a great many people who see him as a leader feel the same way. Gerson thinks this would prevent him from attaining great power, like the Presidency. I wouldn’t be too sure.
Before World War I it seems unlikely anyone could have forecast the Communist takeover of Russia, Mussolini’s coup in Italy, or the rise to power of Adolph Hitler. The war changed a lot of things, and many not for the better. And in the case of both Communism and Anti-Semitism, each movement had a fairly long period of development in the 19th century before each became a dominant force in the 20th. We don’t know just what awaits us in the 21st century, but it seems pretty likely there will be some very serious dislocations. Our politics are already largely the politics of fear. Catastrophes may well bring politics of terror and extremism.
What may be just as important a pathogenic idea is that of exploitation. Not only are people exploited, but also natural resources. We’ve received warnings about the dangers of this for decades, but haven’t paid enough attention to stop the toxic practices.
One such practice is fracking, in which what seems to be indiscriminate drilling is done to extract petroleum from very deep within the earth. Some have attributed earthquakes to the practice. I don’t know if that’s valid, but I would certainly worry about pollution of water in particular, and soil as well. But such concerns don’t seem to perturb any of the drillers, and this is only one of many practices with catastrophic potential.
Rand Paul may or may not be a politician with potentially disastrous aims and ideas. He seems to represent some that have a bad history, but all of us are complicit in the way our current world works. We may not be interested in owning slaves, or that sort of extreme interpretation of private property, but in this country most of us drive cars and use other products that either pollute or are manufactured by processes that pollute. Paul and his aide are merely representatives of a trend that I consider to be destructive in itself, of which racism, private property and exploitation are leading parts.

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George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin

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The Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case has certainly brought a lot of emotion to the public eye. Probably some see Zimmerman as a hero, but quite a few don’t. One of my high school friends thinks the verdict was justified according to law, but that injustice was still done. One juror says she thinks Zimmerman’s “heart was in the right place”. I’m not sure if it’s the same juror or another one who said she thought that racism had little or nothing to do with the case.

Yet another juror said she and others voted according to law, and would have been a lot more comfortable if they could have voted according to their consciences. She said they asked each other if, under the “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida, it was possible for ANYONE to be convicted of murder there. And, oh by the way, she said they weren’t allowed to consider the possibility of racial profiling in the case.

A different article said the legal system worked the way it was set up to work: a dark-skinned person is always a “suspicious character”, and it’s generally okay to treat suspicious characters any way you please. I haven’t heard the comments of the right-wing pundits yet, but I’m sure they’ll have plenty to say.

On the other side of the case, my high school friend says the jury wasn’t allowed to hear that Martin had a reputation as a fighter successful in “beatdowns”. That isn’t in itself a crime, but maybe it changes the situation slightly: perhaps it was two bullies confronting each other, one with a gun. The other thing the defense brought out was that when Zimmerman called 911 he was told not to follow Martin, but then asked where he went. That’s confusing (at least that’s what the defense contended), and in addition the 911 operator apparently was not a member of the police. That means Zimmerman didn’t have to obey any orders the 911 person gave him.

I’m inclined to believe that race was a big part of this story. Martin did injure Zimmerman, but as far as we know he hadn’t done anything illegal up to that time, and I’m inclined to think that MARTIN was the one who acted in self-defense, though I can never know that for sure. Would Zimmerman have left his car if he hadn’t been carrying a gun? I doubt it. To me, the most likely scenario is that Zimmerman started a fight he knew he could win because of his gun, but I can never be certain of that either.

Zimmerman’s brother was interviewed on NPR, and said that his brother was receiving a lot of death threats from people who apparently want to take the law into their own hands. Another article stressed the irony of that: by killing a black person, Zimmerman will now be experiencing what lots of dark-skinned people do: he’ll be constantly looking over his shoulder. I doubt that’s what he expected.

Another black writer in The Sun Magazine wrote about his experience of being stopped by the police. He said that he’s always afraid when that happens, because he knows what can happen. Dark-skinned people can be treated arbitrarily without any consequence to their abusers. He then told how he set up a beehive, and went to extract honey from it. The bees surrounded him, and he grew afraid they’d attack him. He knew that they could sense his fear, and had a sudden desire to soak the hive with gasoline and set it on fire.

But the bees didn’t attack. If they sensed his fear, they were willing to allow him to remove the honey anyway without doing anything to him.

Race is one of the issues that seems to bring the worst out in people, because people fear. Sometimes the fear may be justified. Often it is not. Trayvon Martin was seen by a good many people as a thug, simply because he was young, black, and wore a hoodie (as, fairly famously, does Bill Belichek, the white coach of the New England Patriots). He fit a stereotype, and probably a lot of people were unwilling to look further than that. We don’t know if that’s what George Zimmerman saw in him, but I suspect it was.

If that’s what it was, then dehumanization won again. When we refuse to see others as human beings, we can be persuaded to do horrible things. That, I think, is what happened that night. Whether or not George Zimmerman intended to kill Trayvon Martin, he always knew he had that option because he carried a gun.

Did Trayvon Martin intend to beat up George Zimmerman because he hated white people? Possibly, but we’ll never know for sure. I think it’s more likely that he felt he was being attacked (whether that was objectively true or not), and responded by trying to defend himself. But he can no longer tell us what he was feeling, and it seems unlikely that George Zimmerman ever will, especially if he’s ashamed of what he felt.

So a pattern with a long history played out again. Probably some people will applaud that. I can’t.

The Past Beneath the Sea

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If most people think people think about history at all, they probably think about recent history, like American history. If they think about ancient history they probably think of Greeks, Romans and Israelites. The Bible provides a link to ancient history that a lot of people probably never explore.
Even for people interested in ancient history their interest probably goes no earlier than the Sumerians, possibly the earliest civilization we know about, though that’s debatable. Which is why Graham Hancock’s (in particular) explorations of ancient times have so thrilled me. He fills in a lot of the background to the ancient world, which is the background to ours. Otherwise the past, previous to about 5,000 years ago, is pretty much a black hole. There were cavemen and then there were Biblical characters. That’s probably about all most people know.

Graham Hancock has long been convinced that human civilization is much older than we think. The premise of his book Underworld is that much of the evidence of earlier civilization is now underwater.

When the last Ice Age ended, about 15,000 years ago, glaciation covered much of northern Europe and Asia, as well as North America. After much of the ice melted it took about 7,000 years for the earth to become stable again, both climatically and geologically. There were many huge volcanic eruptions, which sent tons of ash into the atmosphere, which would screen the sunlight and cause glaciers to grow again.

The surface of the earth had been pressed down by the tremendous weight of the glaciers; when that weight was released, earthquakes were the result, and with the earthquakes came tsunamis.

Besides all that, once scientists began studying the mechanics of the meltdown, they realized that huge volumes of water had become trapped UNDER the glaciers, restrained by dams of ice. When these dams melted tremendous amounts of water were suddenly released. It’s estimated that at least three really large flood episodes of this sort occurred in the several thousand years following the end of the conditions that kept the glaciation in place. Maybe there were even more than that, possibly of different sorts.

Scientists have begun studying what the earth looked like during the Ice Age, and how it looked at various times afterwards, while ocean levels rose to about 120 meters deeper than before. Much of the world’s prime beachfront property must have been submerged: scientists estimate about 25 million square miles. If it’s true that civilization predates the Ice Age, much of the evidence must now be underwater.

One of the things that seems to follow from this is that the world’s mythologies are not just fantasy. One can’t take them absolutely literally, but there seems often to be some truth to them.

The story of the Great Flood doesn’t come just from the Bible, nor just from the Middle East. There are versions of it all around the world, and the period following the Ice Age seems to be the most likely time for it to have happened.

The Indian version has a man discovering a talking fish, which asks him to protect it from predators. The man does so, putting it first in a jar, then in a pool, and when it’s finally grown big enough back into the ocean. The fish then tells him that a flood is coming, and to build a boat. The man does so, hitches it to the fish, and the fish tows him, some information for after the flood, and Seven Sages, to the Himalayas, where the boat is hitched to the highest mountain.

The language, says Hitchcock, is ambigious enough that one could understand that what was taken to the Himalayas was not a boat, but information that needed to be spread among any survivors so they could rebuild civilization on a sound basis. And the first traces we see archaeologically of Indian civilization (though this has been debated), is in the area of Mohenjodaro and Harappa, in northwest India and Southern Pakistan, in a hilly region not so far from the Himalayas.

The two cities seemed anomalous because they were contemporary with both Sumerian and Egyptian civilization, and were good examples of urban planning: they obviously weren’t the first cities their citizens had built. Archaeologists have been busy since those cities were found, and have discovered a number of other villages and towns in the region that put the date for the civilization back 2,000 years or more. That makes the developments in Harappa and Mohenjodaro easier to understand.

But there seem to have been even earlier cities. The various Indian holy writings spoke of a city called Dwarka which had been submerged off the northwest coast. Another city, also called Dwarka, had been built to replace it. Scientists looking in the ocean near the modern Dwarka have found what appears to be a city some nine miles long. That’s comparable to at least a medium-sized modern city, and since it’s now beneath the ocean, it must have been built VERY long ago, since there’s no record of cities being submerged this way in historic times. That makes the usual Western chronology of Indian civilization suspect: That has the Indian scriptures being codified around 1200-1500 BC, a thousand years, more or less, after the so-called Aryan invasion.

Indian scholars now believe that there WAS no Aryan invasion, that it was an invention of Western scholars when they realized that Sanskrit was related to the Indo-European languages. One of the implicit assumptions of it was that brown people couldn’t have created as high a civilization as whites. What I would suggest is that the peoples who spoke whatever tongue Sanskrit and the others are descended from came from a possible common homeland, and I have some anecdotal evidence for that.

A few years ago I spoke to an Indian man, who told me that the original Iranian and Indian religions had the names of gods and demons in common, but the demons of one culture were usually gods of the other, and vice versa, which strongly suggests some original close relationship.

A young Iranian woman told me that many Iranians believe that their ancestors once lived in Siberia, giving us a hint as to where both cultures came from.

The other datum came from JG Bennett, a student of George Gurdjieff, who cited an Indian scholar who had closely studied the Upanishads. These have extensive imagery of dawn which doesn’t apply to the tropics, but is more likely to have come from an area near one of the poles.

Near the north and south poles the sun doesn’t shine for half a year. When winter is ending the sun comes closer and closer to the horizon for a number of days before rising, and then doesn’t entirely set again until winter. This is what some parts of the Upanishads seem to be describing, so the theory is that the Aryans (or whatever you want to call them) at one time lived along the shores of the Arctic Ocean, at a time when at least some parts of Siberia had a milder climate than the whole region has had any time recently.

This was true during the last Ice Age, and then changed suddenly. Quite a number of quick-frozen mammoths have been discovered in the last century or two, some with stomachs carrying undigested food of a sort that hasn’t grown in that area since.

This makes the Indian tradition very old indeed, and strongly suggests that at least part of the population migrated from Siberia into India. We have no idea (assuming this is true) just when that was. The Mohenjodaro/Harappa region has settlements from at least 6,000 BC, and maybe even earlier. The Tamils and Dravidians, in southern India, seem to have been there much longer, but share the same religious culture, even though their languages are different. India seems to be a very old country and civilization.

Not only is it old, but the religious ideas in it are old. The god Shiva or Siva seems to have been there from the beginning (whenever that may have been), often in the guise of a yogi, wearing only a loincloth, his hair long and matted.

A good many of the Flood legends have the idea the humans were punished for misbehavior, but the misbehavior isn’t spelled out in detail. According to Indian legend, the Seven Sages (who seem to have been a pretty constant presence for quite a long time) created kings, because kings seemed to be necessary for human welfare, and taught the skills that were needed to survive, but discouraged people from materialistic desires. If that’s a clue to what humans did wrong to cause flooding, it’s pretty clear that the human race hasn’t changed much.

So Indian civilization seems to have been in place for quite a long time, as its own legends say. The Indian cosmology seems to be one of repeated cycles, that each cycle ends with a catastrophe affecting the whole world, whereupon mankind has to start over again. The Seven Sages (and perhaps similar groups elsewhere) are responsible for transmitting necessary knowledge to the survivors of catastrophe to make human life possible and reasonably comfortable again.

This view is contrary to the Western ideal of progress, but that ideal seems to be incomplete, at best. At the beginning of the 20th century most Western countries were optimistic because of the progress of technology in the previous century, which had greatly changed the conditions in which most people lived. They expected more of the same in the new century, and got some of it: technology certainly progressed, but at the same time there were ruinous wars and other ugly social events that considerably dimmed optimism.

There had been few wars in Europe between the Napoleonic wars and World War I, but especially towards the end of that period there had been narrow escapes before the World War began, as if people were restless and WANTED war. Once the war was well begun, a lot of people realized that they DIDN’T want war, but were helpless to escape it. And out of the war came the seeds of wars to follow. Now the pursuit of material wealth has come close to ruining us, if it hasn’t ruined us already.

If we know a good deal about ancient Indian civilization, we know virtually nothing about the ancient civilization of Malta. We know that the current language is Semitic, which may mean that ancient inhabitants also spoke a Semitic language, but we know almost nothing about them, except that they left megalithic architecture unlike any other place in the world, and it’s very sophistacated. But they didn’t leave writing, unlike other civilizations, so what we know is only what we can deduce from the ruins they left.  Like the ancient Indian and Sumerian cities, it’s obvious that the builders had previous practice, the question being, where? Hancock suggests the answer is in the Mediterranean Sea.

He has maps of the ancient world showing sea levels from the Last Glacial Maximum, more than 18,000 years ago, down to around 5,000 years ago. Before the various flooding events, Malta had a land bridge to Sicily, which in turn was connected to Italy. It also extended much further southeast than it does now, so that’s where further evidence might be. The problem is that it takes a great deal of effort, technology and funding to find any evidence underwater. At one point Hancock speaks to an archaeologist who says that no one could find any Paleolithic evidence in the sea, which assumption Hancock says is because the Old Stone Age evidence we’ve found on land has been scanty, a matter of ancient tools, mostly.

The problem with this assumption is that there are still cultures existing in the Stone Age now, which could mean that not all human cultures were on the low level we associate with the Stone Age. Our distant ancestors may not have had modern technology, but that doesn’t mean they had NO technology. I don’t think anyone knows for sure how people handled gigantic stones in cultures all over the world, from Egypt to Lebanon to Malta to France, England, and South America.

And then there’s the question of maps. Hitchcock goes into some detail about them, both here and in a previous book, Fingerprints of the Gods. Researchers have discovered maps from as long ago as the 13th century that were comparably accurate to 19th century maps. This in contrast to maps based on a “T” figure, in which Europe lay on one side of the T, Africa on the other, Asia at the base, and the ocean at the top. That much is fairly accurate, but nothing else is. Maps constructed by Claudius Ptolemy, who lived in the 2nd century AD are somewhat more accurate, but a map from Pisa in the 13th century is far more accurate than any of these (though it does contain mistakes). It’s the earliest surviving example of what are called Portolan maps, which have accurate latitudes and longitudes (though unmarked).

Some of these, from the 16th century, appear to show Antarctica, about 300 years before it was officially discovered. One shows the west coast of South America, at a time when no one had explored it, more accurately than the east coast, which had been explored. Where did these maps come from? The evidence seems to show that they weren’t made from the experience of contemporary seamen, which suggests that they were copied from ancient manuscripts that had survived to that time, but seem to have been lost since.

One possible source is the Phoenicians, who were by far the best seamen we know about from the ancient world. The traveled all over the Mediterranean, had colonies on the Atlantic coasts of Spain and North Africa, traveled in the Indian Ocean, and may (at least occasionally) have crossed to the Americas. Fairly recent analysis of bodies contained in Egyptian mummies from at least 3,000 years ago revealed not only tobacco but cocaine. Some form of tobacco might have been available in the Old World, but cocaine comes (as far as I’m aware) only from South America.

Another possibility is that these maps predate even the Phoenicians. A great many ancient cities are built on or near latitudinal and longitudinal lines, especially if you choose the Great Pyramid as the base point of longitude. These cities are also oriented to north and south, but a good many of them are oriented to the west of the current North Pole. And that suggests that the originals of these cities were built at a time when the North Pole resided in a different area from today.

Hancock includes a number of examples of maps being used which seem to have been based on maps of ancient times. One such was used by the Gujeratis, who were among the best of the Indian seamen and navigators. The maps they had didn’t show the Malacca Strait, so they didn’t sail in that direction. And in the distant past there had been no strait there. Malaya had been connected to the mainland.

Another example is that of Columbus and his partner Martin Alonzo Pinza, who had a book, which Pinza’s son testified his father had received from the library of Pope Innocent VIII which showed across the ocean from Europe an island which they thought was Cipango, or Japan. Europe was aware of Japan because of Marco Polo’s account of his travels, but had only a general idea of its location. Columbus discovered the New World (though at least a few others had known of it already), but thought it was Asia, and may never have changed his mind.

The book Columbus and Pinza shared is mysterious, and as far as we know no longer survives. But it seems to have been accurate enough to tell the two navigators about how far they had to travel and about when they could expect to arrive. At one point Columbus decided to reef some of his sails and travel more slowly for fear of striking land or reefs during the night. How did he know when to start being cautious?

Maps of the 16th century, following Columbus, often showed islands in the Atlantic that weren’t actually there, but corresponded to the shapes of Japan and Taiwan. This strongly suggests one or more ancient maps which had given Europeans some idea about these islands, though not where they were.

Modern humans have been around for at least 40,000 years. That’s the conservative estimate. A recent DNA study traced most, if not all of mankind to one woman who lived (if I remember correctly) 200,000 to 300,000 years ago. Out of all that time our recorded history is barely more than 5,000 years. What were our distant ancestors doing all that time? No doubt it took some time for them to acquire the skills of civilization, but Hancock mentions the Jomon culture of ancient Japan, which had pottery, some of which has been securely (he says) dated to 16,500 years ago, several thousands of years older than pottery found anywhere else. These people also seem to have been cultivating rice very early: 8,000 or more years ago.

It would take something like an all-out effort to do any comprehensive archaeology beneath the oceans, and that much funding is unlikely to be allocated anytime soon. But it would at least be very interesting to know more about the mysterious past of our species. Our birth and development are mostly unknown, and learning more might provide us with significant benefits, besides the simple thrill of understanding the long-forgotten.

Orson Scott Card’s Empire and Hidden Empire

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Orson Scott Card is a very good writer and also sees things clearly. His two-book series Empire and Hidden Empire have a lot of interesting points to them. One is his take on contemporary politics, which has been roughly the same for a long time. The other is his take on religion.

He’s a Mormon and a religious man. His characters in these books aren’t Mormons, but they are devout Christians, and that’s a big part of the story. His hero is a soldier, and a better than average one who is in Special Ops and is a great leader. He’s also a father of five with a very competent wife who is also quite religious. He’s an old-fashioned conservative, while she’s an old-fashioned liberal, and to top it off, he’s a Serb and she’s a Croat. A relationship that shouldn’t work but does.

After service in Iraq he’s assigned to get an advanced degree at Princeton, and encounters a professor who picks on him. He doesn’t think that much of it at first because Princeton, like many elite universities, is very politically correct, but the professor goads him into saying what he really thinks during his course, then at the end congratulates him, at which the hero, named Reuben Malich, is taken aback. The professor says that Malich is the best student he’s had in years, and that he THINKS, which most people don’t do. He then asks Malich what he would do if he found out a civil war was brewing. Would he help a group of people the professor knows who are trying to head one off? Malich says he would do nothing to advance a civil war and everything he could to stop it. The professor says that if anyone contacts him using the professor’s name they will do nothing to encourage him to break the oaths he’s taken as a soldier. It’s an odd encouter, and Malich is bothered by it.

Perhaps a year or so later Malich has been assigned to the Pentagon to come up with ways to assassinate the president of the USA so that he can be protected against any kind of plot, a sort of war-gaming. But he just happens to be in the vicinity when terrorists using the plan he’d developed swim underwater up the Potomac, bring rockets ashore, and blow up the wing of the White House where the  President, Vice-president, Joint Chiefs of Staff and others are meeting, killing all of them. Shortly after that New York City is invaded by kind of movie-monster robots. Some group in the country seems to be in rebellion.

Initially it’s all confusing, but eventually it turns out to be an extreme Leftist group that has mounted the rebellion, which is pretty quickly quelled. The aftermath of that is that the professor Malich had met at Princeton, who has subsequently been working at the NSA becomes President, nominated by BOTH parties. That sounds impossible, but Card makes it logical. In the midst of the action, Malich is murdered, so the story becomes about his friends, who are also superior military men, and instrumental in stopping the rebellion.

Card explains in an afterword that he’s writing (the novel was published in 2006) about the political division in this country, that to him it seems that BOTH sides have become extremists, expecting anyone who agrees with any of their views to agree with all of them. Each side can see the craziness of the other, but not their own craziness. Not much has changed in seven years.

I have to confess that I’m one of those people who, because of my bias to the Left, can see the foolishness of the Right much more easily than the foolishness of the Left. But my brother, who recently visited, straightened me out a bit. Conservatives, he said, remain angry because for a long while the media were extremely condescending and disrespectful to conservatives. I wasn’t paying much attention to politics back in the 70’s, so I didn’t really remember. As my brother pointed out, we didn’t notice because we agreed with the media.

Now conservatives have their own media, so their voice gets heard a lot louder. The playing field has been balanced somewhat, but now there’s cynicism on both sides about the motives of each other, some of it eminently deserved. Nobody wants to compromise, and that’s not good for democracy.

Early in the novel, the professor who becomes president, talks about how the USA is often compared to the Roman Empire. The professor argues that America is NOT YET an empire, and compares this country rather to the point in history when the Roman Republic became an empire. This happened first because of Julius Caesar, a wildly ambitious and able man, who was an able politician and a supremely gifted military man. He was eventually assassinated because some Romans (including some of his friends) thought he was going to make himself emperor. His assassination set off a huge civil war, right after there had already been one, and Caesar’s heir, Octavian eventually won the war and became emperor, though he never allowed himself to be called that. As an empire Rome entered a very stable period, in spite of most of Augustus’s immediate successors being either corrupt, incompetent, or madmen. Rome was able to survive them and entered a very stable period with a succession of good emperors. Card and his professor character suggest that what weakened the empire was that the plague hit Rome twice within about 50 years, and lowered the population so they couldn’t defend themselves against the barbarians.

The plague did something else too, Card points out. Christians living through it didn’t run away, as most of the pagans did, but took care of each other, and also a number of pagans. They weren’t able to stop the plague, but people who had a reasonable amount of care survived more often than people who didn’t, and that favorably impressed a lot of people who hadn’t liked Christians in the past. Card cites a historian who believes that this predisposed Romans to accept Christianity as the state religion in the next century.

The second novel is about a modern plague that comes out of Africa, and has a high death rate. It destabilizes an already unstable region, and the US President imposes a quarantine on the whole continent. Various Christian groups protest this, and volunteer to go to Africa to help the plague victims, though they can’t return to America unless they’ve caught the plague themselves and recovered, at which point they’re immune.

Considering the world’s overpopulation, there are probably a good many people who would welcome such a plague, and especially in Africa, since they don’t consider Africans worthy of any respect. One of the main characters of the second novel is a Nigerian who survives the plague while most of his family dies of it, only to see the survivors mowed down by Nigerian soldiers. He’s just been given a digital camera and takes pictures of the atrocity from the tree he’s in. Once the soldiers are gone he manages to get into town and a doctor there uploads the pictures onto the internet–and then succumbs to the plague himself. The African boy is taken to the USA, and begins lving with Reuben Malich’s family. Malich is gone, but his wife is highly respected, to the point of being a Presidential advisor, and the most influential of them. The boy obviously has adjustments to make, but he’s in a good environment, and becomes close to the family.

Malich’s military friends are sent to Africa to stop the violence against plague victims, and are there when Malich’s oldest son, only 13, decides he has to go and do what he can. His mother is appalled, but can’t argue with him, because he’s doing what she’s told him a Christian is supposed to do. So she leaves the other children with a relative and goes with him and the African boy.

Wouldn’t it be nice if Christians got more publicity when they do things like that? Some do, but the best of them keep a low profile. The ones who hunger for publicity often have ulterior motives. Not all people who claim to be Chrisitian are good, any more than all military people are good. Nobody should either worship or demonize either group, but recognize them to be as human as the rest of us, and just as liable to heroism and fallibility. The Christians in this book are good, and so are the military men, but that doesn’t stop them from making mistakes.

I recently wrote about Cordwainer Smith’s story, The Dead Lady of Clown Town. In that story Smith portrays such a radical form of love that it verges on the supernatural: People actively seeking death by loving their enemies is something outside most of our ordinary experience. Card’s Christians aren’t supernatural people, though many of them are very intelligent and highly trained. George Gurdjieff, the spiritual teacher who has fascinated me for years, defined a Christian as one who keeps all of Christ’s commandments. He says that to do this one must first be ABLE to keep them, and this is simply impossible for the ordinary person. A true Christian, by his definition, has stepped outside of ordinary life into what we would call the supernatural.

On the other hand, people at least TRYING to behave as Christians in the best sense are certainly better than those of us who DON’T try. People who have gone beyond ordinary humanity, as many testify that Gurdjieff did, are also able to make mistakes. In fact, says one writer, they are subject to temptations that ordinary people can’t even imagine. So to be a Christian (and Gurdjieff interpreted this broadly, saying that all the religions that weren’t simply made up could be regarded as Christian, because they all began with the same ideals) is not an easy road to take. There are always temptations, though the nature of these may change.

One of the climactic events of the story is when a Sudanese army comes to Nigeria, knowing that the American soldiers all have the plague, and are unable to fight. Their base is in a university, and the students fight soldiers who have  machine gun,  while the studnts only have clubs. The military men try to protect the Nigerian and American plague victims, but are sick themselves, and too weak to do so. Most of the Sudanese soliders get killed before reaching the victims, but two arrive, and Malisch’s son is killed after having killed one of them. The African boy kills the other.

Malisch’s wife is shattered emotionally just as she’s coming down with the plague herself. She wants to die, and almost does. One variant of the disease causes bleeding similar to the Ebola virus, and she bleeds, but survives anyway. She believes that her husband told her she couldn’t die yet.

The second novel isn’t quite over, though. Most of Malish’s soldier friends believe that the President has set them up, being complicit in the short civil war in the previous novel, and having notified the Sudanese that the American soldiers in Nigeria were unable to defend themselves. The six of them decide to assisinate this President. Only one of the group, who had only known Malich for three days before he was murdered, is against their plot, which they keep from him, but which he suspects. He arrives at the White House just in time to kill the would-be assassins, who had been friends, even though they’d excluded him from some things. He discovers that the President had in fact foreseen how things were going, and had taken advantage of situations that offered him the power to change the world.

Usually such a person is bad news for the world. Consider Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao. But against them place Octavian, who became Augustus, and made Rome such a stable government that at least part of it lasted for another 1400 years. Card also points out that most politicians, while they accomplish very little, are also not really dangerous, because they don’t want to take responsitility for anything. The fanatics who want to really accomplish something usually accomplish misery for most people they come in contact with, but not always. In this novel Africa is realigned along tribal borders, and the erstwhile heads of government aren’t allowed to escape to Europe or eslewhere. He also begins phasing out the combustion engine to save oil for things it’s really necessary for. In some ways he’s not a nice person. People seeking power have to be ruthless, but he’s not in love with ruthlessness. He’s sorry when people he cares about get hurt, and doesn’t kill for the fun of it. In human life there are no guarantees. Too much power is often bad, but so is too little, and both can be corrupting influences. But this character has used his power to do what appear to be good things. Probably not everyone will agree, and I don’t agree with all Card’s  opinions either (as he wouldn’t agree with all of mine), but his arguments are more logical than a lot of things I read.

He says very clearly that our current political situation is bad for democracy, that without noticing it we’ve all become fanatical, saying that he’s experienced people on both Left and Right who have disagreed so violently with him that they wanted to keep anyone from buying his books. He’s survived anyway, but with that sort of experience one can see him being disenchanted with both sides equally. He says this is the worst political climate we’ve had since the Civil War, and I agree. That war was an irrational outburst, and we don’t seem to be any more rational now. We don’t HAVE to have a civil war, like him, I certainly hope we can avoid it, but I’d say the ground has been thoroughly prepared.

I could play the blame game, and have in the past, but that’s the sort of thing most likely to start a war. If we continue excluding our fellow Americans, we’re just playing the dehumanizing game. If no one’s willing to compromise how will we end but in violence? There are severe problems that would perhaps be better addressed if we were a united people. But maybe it’s going to take catastrophe, manmade or otherwise, to make us come to our senses.