Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Moon is Harsh Mistress - Robert A. Heinlein

I am slowly rereading some books that had a strong impression on me when I was very young. I believe that I first, and last, read Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in the early 1980’s. This was another book that, while I read so long ago, contains images and ideas that have stayed with me throughout life. My take on this work now is that it is a very imaginative, innovative and fun story. However, Heinlein presents a philosophy that, while thought provoking, is very problematic

The story takes place on the future Moon of the 2070’s. The Lunar colony has served as Earth’s dumping ground for the unwanted. Criminals and political exiles are sent there permanently. Due to physical changes brought about by the low lunar gravity, both the exiles as well as their progeny are unable to return to Earth for any longer than a few weeks, as an extended stay would be fatal. (Heinlein’s book was first published in 1962. While acclamation to Earth’s gravity has turned out to be a serious issue for long - term space travelers, it turns out that the fatal effects predicted by Heinlein were overblown).

The Lunar colonists, exiles, known as “Loonies”, work as ice miners and farmers, their products are shipped to Earth, which has become dependent on Lunar grain production. The Lunar authority runs the colony as a somewhat oppressive dictatorship. However, while the Authority economically exploits the colonists it generally does not interfere in people’s everyday lives.

We are first introduced to our narrator, Manuel Garcia O'Kelly or “Manny”, a one armed computer technician who from time to time is sent to repair the supercomputer that runs much of Lunar Colony. During the course of the repairs Manny begins to have conversations with the computer who calls himself “Mike”. Mike, very powerful to begin with, has been constantly expanded and enhanced, as he is needed to perform more and more tasks for the Colony. As a result, unknown to anyone but Manny, he has achieved sentience. No cold or calculating machine, Mike has a mischievous sense of humor, and is creative and lively. He quickly becomes one of the most engaging characters in the story.

Manny and Mike become involved in an underground resistance movement aimed at overthrowing the Lunar Authority. The two are joined by several colorful characters including Wyoming Knott-Davis or “Wyoh”, a woman who is an impassioned revolutionary, as well as Professor Bernardo de la Paz or “Prof”, a revolutionary intellectual who bears strong similarities to Benjamin Franklin.

With the help of Mike’s amazing analytical and communication abilities, as well as his control of lunar systems, the resistance begins to gain traction by spreading its message, disrupting Lunar Authority operations and communications as well as inciting riots and civil disturbances.

When Lunar Authority security forces rape and murder a Loonie woman the colony explodes into rioting and the Lunar Authority is overrun.  Though not really ready to take over, the revolutionaries form a government. Mike, posing to the unknowing masses as a person through computer simulation as its head.

The Lunar Authority, backed by all of Earth, attempts to take back the colony. An invasion of Lunar Authority troops is beaten back. Next, a space war erupts. The Lunar Colony for years has used giant catapults to launch payloads of grain down to Earth (this is a real Engineering possibility, futurists and engineers still foresee such catapults being used to send Lunar minerals to the Earth). When hostilities break out, the Loonies use the catapults as weapons. They begin to hurl huge cargo containers at the Earth. The impact of such objects hitting the planet at enormous speed is equivalent to the detonation of a moderate size nuclear weapon. Initially the containers are aimed at unpopulated areas and bodies of water. But as Earth’s forces continue to attack the Colony with nuclear missiles, the Loonies begin to hit targets closer and closer to cities.

The philosophy expounded by Heinlein in this book is interesting but questionable for me. Heinlein dubs it “Rational Anarchy” It is a form of Libertarianism and has certain limited parallels with the ideology of Ayn Rand. In fact, at one point in the narrative, Prof, who is Heinlein’s spokesperson for Rational Anarchy, states “I could get along with a Randian” This sets off alarm bells with me. Living in the United States of 2012, I believe that a branch of Libertarianism, partially fueled by the writings of Rand has seized an enormous amount of power in American government. Its fanatical adherents are continuing to do terrible damage to the United States. For instance, they have for years successfully denied health care to tens of millions of people, now threaten to wipe out much of the American Retirement system in order to pay for tax reductions that are heavily skewed to the wealthy, allow America’s infrastructure to rot and become obsolete, and foster an entire host of additional maladies. Furthermore, having read Rand, I find her to be a cold and mechanistic thinker who advocates what is ultimately a simplistic and naive ideology. She spews personal venom at those who do not share her philosophies. Case in point, The Fountainhead contains a “Liberal” character, clearly meant to be an archetype, that is cold, calculating and inhuman. I would argue that in Heinlein’s case however, that while his belief system is just as unworkable as Rand’s, his vision is much more humane, reasoned and thoughtful. He also shows respect for those who do not agree with his beliefs. For instance, though best described as a Social Democrat, Wyoh is portrayed as intelligent and honorable.

As expressed by its fictional proponents as well as by the society portrayed in the book, Rational Anarchy is strongly anti government, anti authority, and anti any organization other than the family.

Rational Anarchy is also pro - capitalist and free market.  A controlling and overbearing Lunar Authority is constantly oppressing The Loonies economic and work activities. Again and again the Authority is portrayed as an inept and inefficient mess. provides commentary indicating that such characteristics are true of all governments.

Heinlein is no more forgiving of democracy as he is towards dictatorship. He portrays the legislature elected by the newly independent Lunar Colony as composed of fools who are unable to accomplish anything by themselves. Repeatedly, Prof is highly critical of democratic systems. He observes that the masses can be easily manipulated and that those of a minority opinion always rightfully feel disenfranchised.

Prof labels government as a disease that humans cannot shake. If a government must exist, he argues that it be small and be what he describes as “starved”. He opposes all codified restrictions on individual rights and freedoms. He also argues against all taxes and regulations.

Furthermore, the belief system rejects any group morality, as when a person says that “country X was wrong” “or country Y was right”. The professor states:

“In terms of morals, there is no such thing as 'state.' Just men. Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts."

Heinlein’s ideology places no responsibility for the individual to obey laws or rules other then his or her own oral beliefs. Prof contends:

“I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do”

The rational part of Rational Anarchy comes in as the philosophy recognizes that this belief system will never be universally accepted and its adherents must get along in a world where they are a minority. In consequence, unlike Rand, Heinlein recognizes that sometimes even the rules of the ideology need to be broken in order to make things work in an imperfect world. Prof, who claims to be a vegetarian, exemplifies this, as he occasionally eats meat and jokingly pretends it is a vegetable. Later, he allows pro lunar independence propaganda to be spread by the revolutionary government as a way to deal crises, though such propaganda is anathema to his philosophy.

 The benefits of Rational Anarchism are illustrated in the society of Lunar Colony. While the Lunar Authority is economically stifling, sometimes represses dissent, and controls the “big picture” things, when it comes to day-to -day laws, it plays no part in society. Therefore, Lunar society is without criminal or civil laws. The result is a socially ideal place. The Loonies do not always act individually with wisdom, but when you put everyone’s action together, the end result is a model of an exceptional society.

There is no civil law in a society with lots of commerce. Manny explains that if anyone were to be foolish enough to break a contract, no one would ever do business with that person again. This is a common train of reasoning that I often hear from “no regulation” conservatives.

Criminal law is simple. There are no written laws, police or professional judges.  If someone violates another person or property, or even behaves very obnoxiously, a local group apprehends them and an ad hoc court forms, judge and jury are selected from the populace. The accused is tried. Punishment ranges from a fine to execution. False accusations are discouraged, as accusers who make false or frivolous claims are themselves subject to punishment. Heinlein portrays this system as yielding a low crime, and a highly civil society. Criminals are quickly executed or punished, as are the aggressive and the extremely ill - mannered. Heinlein paints this system as not being comprised of lynch mobs, but as working through common sense to provide justice and tranquility. As a result people are all very polite and civil and there is little crime.

This free and open system also has greatly impacted gender and family relations on Luna. Especially in the early days, men greatly outnumbered women. This numerical imbalance gave women an enormous social advantage with men going to great lengths to curry favor with them. To touch a woman without her consent can lead to trial and severe punishment. Many marriages are polygamous where men outnumber women. Often these relationships are well run matriarchies. Women are never questioned when deciding to bring additional partners into any situation.

Once again Heinlein portrays these arraignments constructed by people without the influence of outside authority as working supremely well. Manny’s group marriage is portrayed as a warm, family style relationship that provides support and love to all of its spouses and children. It is well led by the senior wife, however all members have a say in everything. The needs and desires of all of its spouses are given consideration. It is self sufficient and economically viable.

This vision is different from Rand’s brand of elitist Libertarianism. Rand rails against all collectivism and promotes individual genius and accomplishment as the highest ideal. In her writings she expresses disgust for weakness and finds compassion a contemptible emotion. In contrast Heinlein advocates for the beneficial effects bestowed upon society when the masses are free to interact without the influence of outside authority. He sees the good and bad combining to form a beneficent and civil society that actually takes care of its weakest members. His ideology is not based upon individual elitism but upon the collective common wisdom and efficiency of society.

Though slightly more sophisticated, and much more humane, than Rand, I think that Heinlein’s ideology is also unrealistic and naive. History has shown that societies without strong civil law systems never develop prosperity. Economically viable societies that lose their civil law systems quickly fall apart. It sounds good to say that no one will do business with a contract breaker, but such people and organizations run rampant without civil authority.

As for countries with no codified criminal law, history again proves that Heinlein is sadly mistaken as to the results of such a system. I think such a place would resemble Somalia of the last twenty years as opposed to the balanced community that Heinlein envisions. As for the role of women in a culture where they were greatly outnumbered amid no legal controls, I doubt that they would fare anywhere near as well as Heinlein predicts.

Like many Libertarian philosophies Heinlein focuses too much upon things that are sometimes, but not always, true. By making overly simplistic generalizations he distorts reality. Like many of his peers, Heinlein turns insight into dogma. Government is often oppressive, wasteful and inefficient. But under the right conditions governments have been a key component in human progress, prosperity and the propagation of justice. They sometimes do things very right. Nations without government safeguards have been characterized by ills such as  brutal child labor, exploitation of the weak by the strong, environmental  destruction, and a host of other evils.

I am much more sympathetic to the personal aspects of “Rational Anarchy”. I believe that a human being’s morality should never be subsumed by a group. Nothing is justified only because the law says it is allowed. I agree that if one finds a law or rule immoral, one should do one’s best to disobey it. “My country right or wrong” is a completely untenable statement to me. I read this book when I was young. Along with many other influences, this philosophic angle played a part in helping me to form my beliefs.

I also agree with view of civil liberties espoused by Libertarianism and Rational Anarchy. I want government play as small a role as possible in our personal lives. Thinkers like Rand and Heinlein have it exactly right when they advocate against censorship and government interference in things like reproductive rights, which genders should be allowed to marry, etc.

There is lot more to this book then the advocacy of the philosophy of Rational Anarchism. There are some interesting thoughts and analysis presented upon the nature of revolutions in general. Heinlein also explores many aspects of consciousness as Mike becomes a more and more rounded being. The book’s characters are interesting and at times behave in surprising ways that give them a degree of complexity.  Finally this is fun science fiction. The plot is engaging, the prose is cynical, witty and often humorous. Heinlein has invented a fantastic Loonie slang that Manny uses. This vernacular is brilliant yet at times hilarious. This is a very well rounded work.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress deserves its reputation as a work of classic science fiction. In addition, for someone looking for a fictional philosophic story that explores Libertarian beliefs, this is a much superior alternative to the cold and ultimately juvenile novels of Rand. While I would describe Heinlein’s belief system as sophomoric, it is far more nuanced and reasonable then Rand’s mantra. It is also a much “warmer” book than is typical of her works. Heinlein envisions a system where people look out for and take care of society and each other without government intrusion. I think that Heinlein is off base; however, his presentation is very well stated, respectable and interesting as compared to those of some of his peers. He also carries the reader on a very interesting and fun ride toward his flawed, final destination.

My comparison between this book and Jose Saramago's Baltasar and Blimunda can be found here.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Coincidence and Connections: Heinlein and Saramago

The protagonist of the novel is a man with has lost his left hand but who possess several prosthetic limbs designed to complete varying specialized tasks.

I generally read two books simultaneously. The books that I am currently reading, at least on the surface, seem to be very different and were written by authors who came from very different literary circles. The novels are Baltasar and Blimunda by Jose Saramago and The Moon is Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. To my surprise the above sentence perfectly describes both books! It seems so very strange to me that purely by chance I should be reading both works simultaneously.

Baltasar Mateus, one of Saramago’s main characters, is an eighteenth century ex - soldier who lost his hand in battle. A blacksmith has made him two artificial hands. One manmade hand ends in a hook, the other in a spike.

Manuel Garcia O'Kelly-Davis, Heinlein’s hero, is an inhabitant of The Moon during the 2070’s. Having lost most of his lower arm in an accident, he possesses six high technology artificial limbs, each one    specially designed for specific functions.

Though the missing appendages seem to me to be symbolic in both books, I think that the symbolism is different. Saramago connects Baltasar’s missing hand with a purported missing hand of God. Heinlein’s protagonist’s artificial arms point to the future interface and common fate of humans and technology.

This odd coincidence has gotten me to thinking, are there other similarities between these works and authors?

On the surface Jose Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda and Robert A Heinlein’s The Moon is Harsh Mistress are wildly different books. The authors also seem to be very dissimilar. Saramago could be described as a being a supporter of the political and social left wing. Heinlein, at least during the period that he wrote The Moon is Harsh Mistress, expressed strong Libertarian ideals. These days, at least in America, Libertarianism is, perhaps inaccurately, associated with the political right wing.

Looking at things a little differently however, both books and writers do have some similarities. As per Wikipedia, Saramago advocated “Anarchist Communism.” This belief system rejects government, laws and most institutions including capitalism. It champions people working together in commune like groups.

In The Moon is Harsh Mistress, Heinlein pushed his own philosophy that he coined “Rational Anarchy”.  This belief system also rejects government and laws. It advocates that society works best when individuals are free to decide their own morality and course in life. Unlike Saramago however, Heinlein’s philosophy was very pro capitalist and scorned collective groupings of people.

Though I have not yet completed either work, both books seem to clearly champion the respective authors’ respective beliefs.  Not surprisingly, each novel also has a strong antiauthoritarian streak. Both contrast a corrupt and selfish elite with a somewhat virtuous common people. I also detect feminist themes expressed in both books. While in many ways different, these ideologies clearly have much in common.

Both writers, now deceased, were contemporaries. I wonder if Saramago and Heinlein knew of each other. They seemed to inhabit very different intellectual worlds so it seems likely they may have not been aware of one another. I also wonder if anyone else ever compared these two works. It is such an unlikely coincidence that I should be reading both at the same time.

I am a person who likes to find connections in the world. It can be a fun exercise to compare seemingly incongruous philosophies and thinkers. It amazes me what I find even when I do not try too hard!

I will provide thorough commentary on both books in few weeks when I finish reading them.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Stacy Schiff ‘s Cleopatra: a Life is simply the most enjoyable biography that I have ever read. This book was both enormously entertaining as well as very informative. Schiff is an extraordinary writer. In terms of historical scholarship, her research and attention to detail are unparalleled and she is an excellent crafter of prose. This is my second Schiff book, her A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America is also a highly recommended work.

I loved this book so much for three reasons. First, the intrigue, politics and personalities involved are fascinating. Cleopatra is but one player on a world stage that included Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony, Octavius, King Herrord, Cicero and many other lesser known personas who maneuvered, intrigued, charmed and warred with one another for enormous stakes that included the lives and deaths of the players as well as control over vast wealth and portions of the earth.

Secondly, while familiar with many fictional accounts of these times and people, this is the first time that I have delved into information that was even close to historically accurate. Aside from brief mentions in a college textbook, I have only been exposed to fictional accounts of this era from sources such as Shakespeare as well as television shows and films.

Finally, as eluded to earlier, Schiff is a great writer whose books are a joy to read. Her prose is often poetic and she is a mistress of allegory and clever allusions. She is extremely witty and is often bitingly direct and ironic. For instance, below are a few quotes from various parts of her narrative,

“And in the absence of facts, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history”

“Cleopatra descended from a long line of murderers and faithfully upheld the family tradition but was, for her time and place, remarkably well behaved.”

“Cicero, was the Roman John Adams”

 Schiff explains that this biography of the Egyptian Queen was a little problematic, as available sources were both scarce and suspect. As a result, through no fault of the author, there are missing pieces here. We get some idea of Cleopatra’s personality, but very little of it is first hand and it is full of gaps. Though very literate, no actual writing by the Egyptian Queen herself has survived. Furthermore, very little writing about her by fellow Egyptians remains and most of the available sources are Roman. There is, unfortunately, a sense that certain truths about this woman will remain forever unknown. For instance, Cleopatra’s actions during the battle of Actium, which would shed an enormous amount of light upon the Queen’s character, are maddeningly obscured by a lack of facts.

In addition, as Schiff herself points out, we need to be weary of “facts” and stories that have been presented about the Egyptian monarch. Many of the sources that are available are those of Roman “historians”, such as Cassius Dio and Plutarch, who were often more interested in pushing political and misogynistic agendas as well as telling “good stories” as opposed to getting their facts correct.

 Cleopatra VII Philopato, born in 69 BC as an heir to the Ptolemy throne. This family of Greeks was descended from Alexander the Great and had ruled Egypt for centuries. Throughout the years down though Cleopatra’s time, Ptolemaic siblings married and murdered one another in a dizzying battle for power and succession. Cleopatra herself was successively married to two of her brothers and was directly responsible for the murders of multiple siblings including her second husband - brother. Of course these same siblings were attempting to murder and usurp her.

Cleopatra ruled Egypt at a time when the superpower Rome was gobbling up kingdoms and empires throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond. While still an independent nation in her time, Egypt was more or less reduced to that of a client state of Rome. However, due to its enormous wealth, it was a satellite nation that possessed enormous power and influence in the Roman world.

Both Rome and Egypt were in the constant throws of complex and often bloody power struggles. These contests often intertwined with one another and involved intricate connections between people and events starching over enormous distances.

As a Ptolemaic heir Cleopatra was considered to be a human incarnation of a Goddess. She was extremely educated as well as literate. Her studies were not only scholastic, but included what we would describe today as standards of social grace befitting a queen and a human deity. In a world where royal persons usurped and murdered children, parents, siblings and spouses, it was unusual that Cleopatra maintained a loyalty and closeness to her father, the on again off again ruler of Egypt.

After the death of her father, Cleopatra married her brother Ptolemy XIII and, for a short period, the two co – ruled Egypt. Civil war soon broke out between the sibling – spouses. While in exile, Cleopatra ingratiated herself with Julius Caesar. The two became lovers and Caesar subsequently allied his Roman forces with the queen. Ptolemy XIII was eventually defeated and may have been killed in battle.

Cleopatra bore a son whose father was accepted at the time to be Caesar’s. Throughout Caesar ‘s reign as leader of Rome, Cleopatra consolidated her power. Under her control, Egypt enjoyed a period of unusual stability and prospered. After Caesar ‘s assassination Rome descended into complex and multisided civil wars. Cleopatra eventually allied herself with Marc Anthony who also became her lover and who sired additional children with her.

The armies and navies of Octavius eventually defeated Antony and Cleopatra’s forces. As Egypt was overrun first Marc Antony took his own life followed by Cleopatra shortly thereafter.

There are so many directions that this marvelous book takes us into. I want to talk about what I would define as Cleopatra’s competence. In a world of rulers who often were far better at gaining power then actually ruling, Schiff paints Cleopatra as an extremely able head of state.

Schiff describes the Egypt of the time as possessing a controlled economy somewhat comparable to that Soviet Union. During Cleopatra’s reign the land prospered economically. Beholden to the flood cycles of the Nile, Egypt historically gyrated between periods of prosperity that were followed by periods of famine. Cleopatra deftly managed food and other resources during the hard times to lessen the misery of her people. During the prosperous times the nation thrived under her leadership.

She was also a great patron of arts and science. Egypt’s capital, Alexandria, may have been the world’s greatest city at that time. It was the center of culture, art and learning. It had, however, been experiencing a period of decline in the proceeding century. Innovation in the fields of art and science rebounded and blossomed during Cleopatra’s time thanks to her efforts.

She was extremely popular with the Egyptian people. Schiff credits this esteem to a combination of economic success, an embrace of Egyptian native religion often ignored by her predecessors, as well as a strong dose of charisma and propaganda.

Cleopatra also expertly played the world game of influence and power. While ultimately Egypt was subdued and absorbed by Rome, this end result was likely inevitable. During her reign, the Egyptian sovereign took an Egypt that had been threatened and was in decline and expanded its wealth, territory and influence. Once she consolidated her power the country also enjoyed an uncharacteristic period that was distinguished by the absence of dynastic disputes and civil war.

Part of Cleopatra’s success on the international stage was attributed to what Roman historians and writers labeled as scheming and seduction. Schiff reminds us that these writers described similarly successful men who employed nearly identical strategies as possessing great skill, intelligence and virtue.  An accomplished female ruler was labeled as lascivious and cunning. Her male counterparts were lauded as great men.

Schiff does point to strong evidence that while not a classical beauty, Cleopatra was very good at charming and flattering people and therefore had a knack of talking others into seeing things her way. Whether her charm was related to an erotic charisma is far from clear. While the Egyptian monarch certainly did have sexual affairs with powerful men, her male peers, including Caesar, Antony and Octavius, had scores of liaisons with both female and, at times, male royal personages all over Europe, Asia and Africa. Little criticism was ever leveled against these men for their promiscuity.

While she did have affairs with both Caesar and Marc Antony, she was not the manipulating seductress portrayed by her detractors. Instead she was an intelligent and skilled leader contending for the interests of herself as well as that of Egypt. While Schiff concedes that Caesar may have acted against his own best interests as a result of being smitten with her, Cleopatra’s alliance with Anthony made perfect strategic sense for both leaders and neither was under the other’s sensual “control”, at least early on.

It is possible that later in the relationship Antony may, from his point of view, have made some poor strategic decisions that benefitted Cleopatra. This is not entirely clear however. Conversely, Schiff postulates that very late in the game it may have been in Cleopatra’s best interest to jettison an Antony whose fortunes were in decline. Despite the distorted interpretations of Roman historians, this betrayal likely never occurred.

Finally, even in the method of her death did Cleopatra show great competence. She carefully planned the event for at least several months. Schiff reports that the famous story that the deed was accomplished with the aid of a poisonous snake is almost certainly apocryphal. The Egyptian monarch likely used a poison that did not cause convulsions or other horrendous “side effects”. Instead she likely just went to sleep and died.

Lest I be accused of pouring too much praise on the Egyptian Queen, like her peers such as Marc Antony, Caesar, Octavius, etc., Cleopatra, by today’s standards, cannot be described as a moral person. For instance, she ordered multiple executions, was complacent in enslaving large numbers of people, used prisoners as experimental subjects in her quest to find a painless and effective poison for herself, just to name a few of her transgressions. While these actions were consistent with the leadership of many nations and empires of the day, they should not be glossed over.

Once again, I have not focused on all of the interesting ideas presented in this biography. Readers will find many additional important and compelling themes. Schiff has indeed written a book that is both accessible and entertaining. Cleopatra: a Life successfully throws some light on the enigmatic story of one of the most famous and intriguing women who ever lived. Anyone with even a casual interest in Cleopatra or the era in which she lived will find this biography both engaging and enlightening. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

When Yesterday Was Today - Edmund Siejka

Sometimes it is good to go local. Edmund Siejka is a poet who lives on Long Island, New York, which is also my home. Reading his collection of poems “When Yesterday Was Today” made me feel a little at home. Many of his characters frequent the somewhat familiar setting of New York’s East Village as well as the very familiar setting of Long Island, New York. There is something a little comforting and homey about reading poetry that references newspapers that I know well, streets that I casually drive on and people who use the same local colloquialisms that I do.

My knowledge of poetry is admittedly limited. I have read Shakespeare as well as the many of the classical epic poems throughout my life. I have also explored Walt Whitman, Robert Frost and the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe somewhat deeply. Other than that I have read a few well-known classics from poets such as Emily Whitman and Rudyard Kipling. I am not well versed on modern styles or theory.

With that said I really loved Siejka’s work. The poems are poignant yet not overly sentimental. His style is very accessible and easy to understand but far from simplistic. Siejka focuses on the everyday experiences of mostly everyday people who frequent New York City as well as its suburbs. A few of his poems speak in the voice of American soldiers during the Vietnam War.

When reading these poems several ideas come to mind. One pervasive theme that seems to run through many of the works is the exploration of change that we humans experience over the course of life. Many of the poems focus on a narrator looking back at earlier years and pondering life’s transformations both in himself as well as in others.

One of the more interesting looks at these changes is contained in “Sister Elizabeth”, a poem about a Catholic school nun who mercilessly administered corporal punishment to students. Siejka catches her later in life:

Over the years
Attitudes changed
Commitments weakened
And Sister, childless and alone, realized
Much too late
That her days of sacrifice and Catholicism
Chastity and prayer
Had been a life against nature”

Most of the poems, unlike the above are not about regret; rather they analyze life’s stages and passages from varying points of view. In what is in my opinion a very wise observation, Siejka concludes in “Autumn”,

I now realize
Life did not change
I did
And what I need now
Are good friends,
Honest talks
And simpler times.”

Siejka’s work should be of interest to anyone who is inclined to explore poetry and thoughts about the East Village, Long Island, or just aesthetically pleasing and philosophical observations about life itself.

Many of his poems can be found here.

When Yesterday Was Today can be purchased at Book Revue in Huntington, New York; St. Mark's Bookstore in the East Village, New York, New York; Cano's in Sag Harbor, New York and Housing Works in Soho, New York, New York. The book can also be taken out from the libraries at Cold Spring Harbor, New York and Seaford New York.

The author’s wife is a colleague and friend of mine. My copy of this book was complimentary.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Burr Verses Hamilton: Two Views

On the morning of July 11th, 1804, in a field in the town of Weehawken, New Jersey, the sitting Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr, shot and mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton while the two men were engaged in a duel! The contest was the result of years of rivalry and acrimony between the two men.

Over the last several months I have read biographies of both men: Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg and Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. My general commentary on Isenberg’s book is here. My general commentary on Chernow’s book is here.

While both authors agree on multiple points concerning the rivalry, there are many differences presented, some in the forms of opinions, but a few as to the facts. I find that comparing both works makes an interesting case study regarding the interpretation of history and human events.

Both books agree that when dealing with his political rivals, Hamilton had a combative personality. He would often publish anonymous, personal, often scathing attacks upon those that he differed with. Though Chernow professes the opinion that Hamilton lived by a code of honor, Isenberg argues that such behavior was outside the bounds of what would be considered honorable behavior in Hamilton’s time as well as in our time. Furthermore, both authors concur that in Burr’s writing and political campaigning, he almost never engaged in such personal vitriol.

Each biography makes clear that as one of Hamilton’s chief rivals, Burr was the subject of these vituperatively written and spoken assaults. Isenberg emphasizes that based upon Burr’s personal conception of honor these attacks were outrageous and unacceptable. Though Alexander Hamilton includes many of Chernow’s opinions, he remains nonjudgmental but honest about this aspect of Hamilton’s behavior. This is contrasted by the fact that Chernow is highly critical of Burr, describing him as a man without convictions or honor. Chernow uses words such as  “roguish” and “opportunist” to describe Burr.

In turn, Isenberg is also honest concerning the negative facts about Burr. He was a lifelong slaveholder. He did initiate the famous duel that led to Hamilton’s death. However, as Chernow does with Hamilton, she provides little comment about these flaws while she labels Hamilton as dishonorable and at times “outrageous, hypocritical, even hysterical".

Consequentially I detect some bias in both authors. I must conclude that at times, even honest biographers and good scholars, as I believe that both Isenberg and Chernow are, become a little too fond of the people whom they are writing about!

Both biographers also agree that Hamilton provoked the duel with incendiary comments about Burr, and that early on, in written jousting between the parties, that an apology by Hamilton would have been appropriate and perhaps would have avoided bloodshed. It is Chernow who argues that Hamilton was so stubborn and fractious over the course of his life that he had a great deal of difficulty ever admitting that he was wrong, and would not likely have made such a concession.

A major issue of contention between Isenberg and Chernow are the circumstances of the duel itself. As per both books, in the era and place in question, while these contests at times ended in injury or death, often they did not. The pistols used were notoriously inaccurate and each participant got only two shots at most. Furthermore, duelists would often intentionally fire their weapons into the ground, or “throw away their shots”, not actually wanting to shoot the other combatant.

Both writers as well as online sources indicate that eyewitness accounts of the duel are conflicting and confusing. Chernow pieces together the diverging sources and contends that Hamilton either threw away his shot, or intended to throw it away, and only fired after he was hit in a reflexive action.

Isenberg believes that Hamilton fired first at Burr, probably prematurely and inadvertently. She asserts that Burr then returned fire and hit Hamilton with the fatal shot.

Isenberg has publicly criticized Chernow and others for what she believes is sub par scholarship on the matter. In this 2007 interview she states:

“I challenge Ron Chernow's interpretation of Alexander Hamilton. Chernow presents a very one-sided story about the duel: Hamilton's side. He relies on a lengthy document prepared before the duel by Hamilton, about how he intended to shoot in the air, and why he was morally opposed to dueling. Hamilton's close friend, Gouverneur Morris, who gave the eulogy at his funeral, confessed in his diary that he found Hamilton's claim about opposing dueling to be inexplicable. Hamilton opposed dueling - but died in a duel? Everyone - Chernow, Joe Ellis - ignores the fact that Hamilton, before the duel, put on his glasses, made adjustments for the sun, and aimed his gun. This is hardly the behavior of someone who intended to shoot in the air. This idea that Hamilton was so noble that he shot in the air and Burr shot to kill - it's so one-sided! It hardly reflects the whole story. Yet it's been told so often that it has acquired legitimacy. This is a perfect example of the vilification of Burr and the deification of Hamilton, in which a morality tale of good versus evil has been substituted for historical accuracy.”

Another area where the authors differ is on Burr’s personality and behavior. Though Chernow does grant that Burr had positive traits, for example he was an ardent Feminist, avoided personal attacks on his opponents, and often moderated disputes among his associates, he ultimately concludes that Burr was an unprincipled man who lacked morals and convictions. Chernow asserts that Burr did not have any political convictions and would take any side that would benefit his own career prospects. In contrast, Isenberg looks at the facts of Burr’s political and legal career and concludes that he was a moderate who sometimes agreed with the opposition party and was also willing to compromise.

Another disagreement between the writers concerns the presidential contest of 1800. In the run up to the election, Jefferson and Burr were both Republicans (This party was not the predecessor of the modern American Republican Party) and were running mates. Jefferson stood for President while Burr stood for Vice President. At the time, electors voted for President, not the general public. Due to quirky, arcane election rules as well as chance, when the votes were counted, Jefferson and Burr tied for Presidential votes. In these cases a tie was to be broken in the House of Representatives, which was controlled by the Federalists, who were the opposition party to the Republicans.

For weeks, the Federalists hemmed and hawed and threatened to pick neither man for President. Some Federalists suggested that they might choose Burr if he agreed to come over to their side. Chernow’s account repeats the tale that Burr was quietly keeping the door open to an underhanded selection of himself as President. Chernow provides no evidence for this charge other than the speculation of various Federalist politicians. Isenberg refutes this by detailing Burr’s actions and statements during the time period. Burr clearly stated to everyone who would listen that Jefferson should be chosen for President. Once again Isenberg and Chernow seem to be in agreement on the facts but differ in their interpretations. When I consider both views, Burr’s actions seem to me to be beyond reproach on this matter.

Chernow also takes swipes at Burr for his promiscuity as well as indebtedness. Isenberg convincingly argues that in both of these areas both Hamilton and many other contemporaries had similar shortcomings.

Chernow is a biographer, not a professional historian as Isenberg is. In Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, Isenberg, who is a Professor of History at Louisiana State University, criticizes writers who have vilified Burr as often being non- historians who overly rely upon negative accounts of Burr drawn heavily from the writings of Burr’s enemies including Hamilton himself. Furthermore Isenberg contends that she has used sources never accessed by other historians. When reading both books I did look at the reference notes. Indeed, Chernow’s accounts of Burr draw very heavily upon the writing’s of Hamilton and well as Hamilton’s son.

It is important to keep in perspective that both of these men were flawed. Hamilton was downright nasty and malicious when dealing with political opponents. Chernow even concedes that at one point he threatened to use military force against the opposition. For his part, Burr did kill Hamilton in a duel that he initiated. In my opinion even if we accept Isenberg’s version, the circumstances of this killing at least rise to the level of manslaughter. In addition, while giving lip service to abolition, Burr was a life long slaveholder.

I find that Isenberg’s Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr is the more balanced work. Her notes indicate that she relied on a broader variety of sources. The portrait that she portrays of Burr, as a fairly well rounded but flawed human being who was by far more principled and affable then Hamilton was, rings truer then Chernow’s account.

As for the circumstances of the duel, due to conflicting eyewitness accounts, the actual facts will likely never be known for sure. Again however, as she herself points out, Isenberg cites more credible sources then does Chernow. Therefore, her assessment of the circumstances surrounding the incident seems to me to be more reliable.

My conclusion here is that both Isenberg and Chernow have produced mostly accurate and enlightening works. They actually agree on the vast majority of the facts. In my opinion this lends respectability to both scholars.

Both writers do ultimately draw very different conclusions. In these opinions both writers treat each of their respective subjects with greater understanding then their respective rivals. Reading these two works as well as other sources concerning the two antagonists, illustrates the need to hear multiple sides whenever attempting to understand historical or contemporary events or controversies.