The Borscht Belt

Today's selection -- from City Game by Matthew Goodman. In the 20th century, resorts in New York's Catskill Mountains became the destination of choice for New York City’s Jewish community:

“The Borscht Belt, it was called, a stretch of hotels that ran through the southwestern part of New York’s Catskill Mountains, a couple of hours up Route 17 from the city by ramshackle bus or overflowing family sedan. The Catskills had been discovered as a vacation spot around the turn of the century, when in the summertime Jewish immigrants fled the heat and noise of the city to experience the simple pleasures of country food and an after-dinner walk under the stars; as time went on, a steady stream of Jews from the Lower East Side began making the trek upstate, word having gotten around about the wonders of the mountains – the beautiful scenery, the healthful air, the deliciousness of butter and eggs from cows and chickens you could actually see. Soon farmhouses were converted into boardinghouses, and boardinghouses multiplied into bungalow colonies, and then came the hotels, sprouting like toadstools around the lakes and under the pines. 

“By the 1940s a Catskills vacationer had hundreds of places from which to choose, hotels for every budget and sensibility, from rustic homesteads to the most opulent modern palaces with tennis courts and golf courses; there were vegetarian health resorts and dude ranches and leftist retreats where the evening’s entertainment might be a Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie concert, or the restaging of a Clifford Odets play, or a musical Pageant with a title like Peace in a World of Equality. Some hotels catered to families, while others were understood to be destinations for single people, or married people who arrived without their spouses, and there the evening dances took on a different quality, and couples made abundant use of parked cars and distant linen rooms, and the rules about employees fraternizing with guests were less strictly enforced. One of the hotels, the Sha-Wan-Ga Lodge, was widely known as ‘Schwenga Lodge,” from the Yiddish word for pregnant. The comedian Joey Adams had a joke: ‘Every year thousands of girls come up to the Catskills looking for husbands -- and thousands of husbands come up looking for girls.’

Concord Hotel, Kiamesha Lake, dining room, 1978

“The life of the hotel was carried on to the soundtrack of the public address loudspeaker, summoning bellhops for new arrivals, reporting lost children and phone calls waiting in the lobby, announcing upcoming activities: volleyball games, art classes, riding lessons, cha-cha lessons by the pool. (The Hotel Brickman offered lessons in so many activities that the owner, Murray Posner, once quipped, ‘You should get a diploma, not a receipt, when you leave my hotel.’) Almost all of the hotels provided three gargantuan meals a day, which in the larger hotels became four meals, including a self-service ‘midnight supper.’ Night there was dancing -- many hotels had two house orchestras. One that played American big band standards and the other specializing in the latest crazes of mambo and rumba -- and on the weekends the fancier hotels also offered nightclub routines by stars like Martin and Lewis and Sophie Tucker and Danny Kay and comedians like Milton Berle and Myron Cohen and Henny Youngman.) 'A drunk was brought into court. The judge says, “My good man, you’ve been brought here for drinking." He says, "All right, judge, let’s get started."’) In some of the hotels it was common practice for the comedian to tell the joke in English but reserve the punch line for Yiddish, for that extra ethnic zing, that zetz: ‘Mr. Goldman,’ the policeman asks the old man lying in the street who’s just been run over by a truck, ‘are you comfortable?’ The old man raises his head and replies, ‘Nu me makht a lebn.' (‘Well, I make a living.’)

“Like the jokes, the members of the audience seemed to exist in two cultures at once. They weren’t immigrants anymore but they weren’t precisely American either, though some of the older ones had in their youth changed their names to more American versions, lopping off extra syllables like sidelocks, with one swift stroke converting Old World to New. Many of them still spoke with accents and belonged to mutual aid societies that derived from towns in the ancestral homeland, and even their children, making their way into the wider society, understood the reality of educational quotas and professional restrictions, recognized that while the most talented among them might someday become a Supreme Court justice like Louis Brandeis, none could hope to be president, or even gain admission to many of New York’s elite private club. For a few weeks out of the summer, though, they could forget about their cares and do morning calisthenics and games of Simon Says, or just sit in the sun and do nothing at all, and three times a day, or four, they could eat to their heart’s content, and order more than they needed, and send back plates with scraps of food still on them, and in doing so thumb their noses, at last, at generations of scarcity.”

The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team
author: Matthew Goodman

Captain Cook and Kealakekua Bay

kealakekua bay, sunset

Today's excerpt --from The Wide Wide Sea by Hampton Sides. The stunning Kealakekua Bay, found on the big island of Hawai’i, and the very place where explorer Captain James Cook was greeted—and later killed:

“A sparkling bay, sheltered from the wind. A volcanic cliff, hundreds of feet high, rising over the shores, its layered rock pitted with dreads of feet high, rising over the shores, its layered rock pitted with secret caves. The water a crystalline blue-green, so clear one could see far into its depths. Moray eels and parrotfish slipping through the coral crevices. Spinner dolphins at play on the swells. 

“The place was called Kealakekua– the Pathway of the Gods. Approaching it from the ocean, the bay, with its massive stone walls, had the feel of a grand arena and amphitheater. It was a place of deep mama. Mark Twain, who visited Kealakekua a little over a century later, would describe it as ‘a little curve like the last kink of a snail – shell, winding deep into the land.’ Over the millennia, rivers of molten lava had glopped down the flanks of the Mauna Loa volcano, depositing tongue upon tongue of sloping dark rock at the water’s edge. One day approximately 120,000 years ago, a massive expanse of the Big Island collapsed into the sea here, leaving this considerable notch in the coastline unleashing a tsunami that barreled across the channel, sweeping shards of coral more than a thousand feet up into the high country on the island of Lāna’i, which lies 120 miles away. 

“Kealakekua had long been the place of royal authority on Hawai’i, the residence of the god-kings. The pockmarked cliff face here was a mausoleum where many generations of the island’s leaders had been entombed. When an important dignitary died, priests would conduct ceremonies to bake the body and remove the flesh from the bones; a commoner would be sent down the cliff by ropes to hide baskets filled with the late chief’s skeletal remains, along with relics, deep within one of the many alcoves. After he had safely stashed the bones in a promising place, the commoner would crane his neck and flash a sign to the priests waiting above, who would sever the taut ropes, dropping the poor burial servant to his immediate death upon the stones below. In this way, the bones were protected from looting or desecration. 

“If Kealakekua was the seat of royal power, it was also a nerve center from Hawaiin religion and cosmology. It was the home of Lono, the god of peace, rain, and fertility. A temple – a heiau – had been built on the shores of the bay to honor this important deity and to offer him tributes, including human sacrifices. 

Kaʻawaloa in 1779 by John Webber, artist aboard Cook's ship

“On January 17, 1779, the Resolution and the Discovery entered this beautiful harbor on the Kona Coast of Hawai’i. A strange and magical serendipity had guided Cook to stop here at this ancient, powerful, and ominous spot. It seemed the people here were already prepared to receive. Cook and his men – that, in fact, they had been waiting in anticipation of his arrival. Vast crowds had assembled on the shore and in the water– as many as ten thousand people. With more than a thousand canoes gathered around. ‘I have nowhere in this sea seen such a number of people assembled at one place,’ Cook wrote, noting that the shore ‘was covered with people and hundreds were swimming around the ships like shoals of fish.’

“What was more, the Hawaiians appeared almost deliriously happy. On land, in the water, and in the canoes, faces shone with a peculiar joy. People were singing, laughing, chanting, and beating drums, creating a din that reverberated off the lava cliffs. The energy was frenetic, ecstatic, Dionysian. Cook could tell that something special and peculiar was going on here, a revel of some kind. But he couldn’t imagine what it was about.

“So many Hawaiians tried to climb aboard the Discovery that it started to heel over from the weight and seemed in danger of capsizing. The islanders wanted the same things they had always wanted, at nearly all of Cook’s stops throughout Polynesia: trade, diversion, spectacle, cultural contact, and, most of all, iron. But it felt as though everything had been ratcheted to a manic level, as though the familiar themes of the voyage had here become strangely amplified.

“John Ledyard, the Connecticut American, tried to capture the wild scene: ‘The shouts of joy and admiration proceeding from the sonorous voices of the men confused with the shriller exclamations of the women dancing and clapping their hands, the cries of children , and hogs that were…squalling,’ he wrote, all mingled to form ‘one of the most tumultuous and most curious prospects that can be imagined.’

“Just like the Native Kuaians of the previous year, the Hawaiians were astounded by the visitors and tried to understand them in terms of the world they knew. According to oral history, when they saw the sailors smoking, they compared them to volcanoes, and were baffled by the vapor that seethed from their mouths. They thought the Englishmen;s speech sounded like the song of the ‘ō‘ō, a beautiful bird native to the island that is now thought to be extinct.

“A special canoe, ornamented and imposing, threaded through the many hundreds of vessels clogging the bay. The canoe carried a kāhuna whose name was Koa. The holy man was very old, shriveled, and shaky, with peeling skin, probably from too much consumption of kava, but the Hawaiians seemed to fear and respect him. Koa boarded the Resolution and introduced himself to Cook with much ceremony, presenting a welcoming gift that included a small pig, some coconuts, and a swath of delicate red cloth, which Koa carefully wrapped around Cook’s shoulders like a cape. Cook’s men noted a quality of reverence that made them uncomfortable. Something in Koa’s demeanor, in his voice and movements, went far beyond hospitality or the mere paying of respect. His chants were more like litanies; the encounter seemed to be invested with deep religious ceremony. 

“Koa invited Cook to come ashore, and the captain accepted. While he got ready, the frenzied songs and shouts of the crowds surrounding the Resolution and the Discovery continued to swell. It was bedlam now. THere was an urgency behind their desires and expectations that seemed to have been building for a long time. If this was true of the Hawaiians, it was also true of Cook’s men, who had endured quite a hard journey to get here from the Arctic and had been waiting for this moment for what had seemed to them like an eternity. 

“Lieutenant James King thought the Hawaiians ‘expressed the greeted joy and satisfaction, by singing and jumping, of our coming to anchor,” but added, “nor was the pleasure less on our side, [for] we were jaded and very heartily tired.’”

Author:  Hampton Sides 
Title: The Wide Wide Sea: Imperial Ambition, First Contact and the Fateful Final Voyage of Captain James Cook
Publisher: Doubleday
Date: Copyright 2024
page(s): 289-292

The Louisiana Purchase

Today's selection -- from History of the American Frontier by Frederic L. Paxson. Jefferson's possible motivations behind the Lewis and Clark expedition.  

“With the ratification of the Louisiana Purchase the frontier had little special concern. It wanted the territory and felt none of the constitutional qualms that had distressed Jefferson. The Federalists of New England were tin-own into the opposition and the minority, and now experienced fears of executive usurpation and constitutional violation that they would have scoffed at when in office. They fought in vain the ratification of the treaty, and the appropriation of the funds to pay for Louisiana. Over their objections the transaction was consummated, and Congress passed as well the necessary laws to authorize an American government at New Orleans in place of that of Spain and France. 

“The actual transfer of Louisiana from Spain to France had not taken place, and France never took the trouble to set up a colonial establishment. Late in the fall of 1803, France took a formal possession of Louisiana at New Orleans, and delivered it at once, December 20, 1803, to the agents of the United States, James Wilkinson and William C. C. Claiborne. The upper portion of the province was transferred in the spring of 1804 to Meriwether Lewis, whose presence at St. Louis was in connection with a scheme of Jefferson's for the investigation of Louisiana. 

“Within a few days of the nomination of James Monroe as minister to France, Jefferson sent a secret message to Congress asking authority for a venture whose meaning and propriety were then and still remain uncertain. He asked for an appropriation to pay the cost of a reconnaissance of the Missouri Valley. Since this was French territory and he had no idea of its purchase as yet, the enterprise looks like an encroachment upon the rights of a country with which the United States was at peace. He planned to make the investigation with a detachment of the United States army, under military discipline. If his motive was not science alone, but possible preparation for a war of seizure, there was a special reason for his desire to keep the matter secret. Before the money was ready and the men were found, the consummation of the purchase removed all question of the reasonableness of the exploration; but it cannot yet be stated with certainty the part which it played in American policy at the moment of its proposal. 

‘It is quite possible that Jefferson's motive may have been entirely scientific. His was an active mind and he found time to explore the whole field of scientific attainment as well as the intricacies of politics. His friends found him alert to new ideas, and those who had business with him more than once complained that they could not detach him from his speculations — or hold him to the exclusive consideration of one of these. In his work with the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, he found exercise for this side of his activities. As early as the Revolution he recorded a hope that it might be possible to send an expedition up the Mississippi and the Missouri and lift their topography and resources from the limbo of conjecture to a state of fact. As President, he could control resources that made this possible. Congress found the money in 1803; Jefferson found a leader for the party in a young friend, Meriwether Lewis; and Lewis selected as his second in command the brother of the conqueror of the Illinois country, William Clark. 

Route of expedition with modern borders

“The expedition of Lewis and Clark was organized in the summer of 1803, under instructions from the President dated June 20. It was to ascend the Missouri to its source, cross the continental divide, and descend the Columbia River to its mouth. It was to search for a route across the continent, and while doing this was to observe and record the lay of the land, the races of Indians that resided there, and the animal and vegetable resources. Trappers had long hunted over much of the region in question, and the Jesuit fathers had carried the influence of France to many of the tribes, but there was no description of Louisiana that could be relied upon for accurate information. Every member of the party was ordered to keep a record of the trip, was provided with notebooks and a waterproof cover for his papers, and was directed to keep his journal by him at all times. If there had been as much care taken to procure men trained to know the meaning of what they saw as there was to procure a record and keep it safe, the expedition might have added much to the store of facts. But the men enrolled were sturdy products of the frontier, whose literary habits were untrained. They were able to live in the remote wilderness, but none of them was a scientist in thought or disposition. There was not even a professional physician among them, and no formal preparation was made for dealing with the miscellaneous Indian tribes who might block their way. The party was heavily armed and stocked with trading goods; but when Lewis wanted to converse with the Indians, he was forced to rely upon his mulatto body servant, who by chance spoke French. This servant translated the message to Charbonneau, one of the French guides, who could render it into the dialect he used in talking to his Indian wife, Sacajawea. She in turn translated it again into whatever tongue was necessary as the party met tribe after tribe along their way. She was a squaw of western origin who had been handed east among the tribes as a prisoner of war, and had taken on linguistic training as she came. With three translations between himself and the Indian chiefs, Lewis could not hope for intimate or accurate converse. 

“The enlisted men of the expedition were picked up where they could be found, according to their fitness for a prolonged trip. They mobilized at Pittsburgh and followed the river route past the new State of Ohio, and the older Kentucky, until they reached the Illinois shore, opposite St. Louis. Here they stayed for the winter of 1803-1804, because the Spanish officers at St. Louis would not honor their passports and were not instructed to give up the province. In March, Lewis was made the agent to receive the transfer, and on May 14, 1804, he led his band of thirty-two across the Mississippi and up the Missouri. They advanced in three small boats, ten miles or less a day, rowing, poling, towing, and pulling on ropes that they fastened to the shore. Their hunting parties marched with them, along the banks, shooting fresh meat and observing the country. When Lewis went ashore, Clark stayed with the boats. They found the Indians numerous, and generally friendly. Often hungry and always bored with their unlimited diet of meat, the Indians were greedy for sugar, molasses, coffee, and whiskey. They were willing petty thieves, but as yet they had little reason to be hostile to the whites; and the diseases occasioned by contact between the races were not yet serious. 

“After six months of laborious ascent, the expedition reached the village of the Mandan Sioux, where the Northern Pacific Railroad now crosses the Missouri; and here it went into winter quarters for 1804-1805. In the five months spent among the Mandan, the nature of the fur trade was forced upon their attention. The only resource the Indian had with which to enrich his life was fur. The traders who bought his pelts, paid low prices for them in blankets, ammunition, guns, and household tools, and maintained headquarters without regard to nationality. Lewis found English traders on the Upper Missouri, and saw the profits of the traffic passing to the Hudson's Bay Company or its rivals at Montreal. 

“The summer of 1805 carried the expedition from the Missouri to the Pacific. When they crossed the divide they left anything that could be called Louisiana behind them and entered a region where the scanty claims of foreign powers were divided among Russia, Spain, England, and the United States. They spent the next winter in a fort which they built at the mouth of the Columbia River, and in September, 1806, were back again at St. Louis. 

“The results of the Lewis and Clark expedition were not commensurate with the effort or the success that attended it. In a geographic way it greatly enlarged our knowledge of America. It made new and original contacts with many tribes of Indians. It provided descriptions, had any one cared to read them, of the Missouri and Columbia valleys. But it was many years before a fair compilation of the journals was prepared, and the century was nearly gone before the first critical edition appeared. Patrick Gass, one of the soldier-diarists, published his journal at Pittsburgh in 1807, in a small edition. Nicholas Biddle of Philadelphia began to edit them in 1811, but the war with England was a distraction, and his work did not appear until 1814. Before the party arrived back at St. Louis the world had so changed that, whatever the original idea of Jefferson may have been, it was no longer a vital thing. If he feared the necessity to seize Louisiana, and was preparing a military survey, the ease with which the transfer had been accomplished destroyed it. No power contested the purchase, though Spain showed an irritation at being defrauded by Napoleon. If he hoped to make great scientific discoveries, the journals must have disappointed him for they contained nothing startling. By 1807 there was danger of war with England. After that date the United States was being drawn step by step into the meshes of European politics, and Jefferson had little leisure to play the man of science. Not until after 1815 was the time ripe for a profitable interest in the transMississippi; and then the legend was already in formation to which the remarks of Lewis and Clark gave credence: — that, after all, the country beyond the Missouri River was not fit for white habitation or use."

H.L. Mencken On The Gettysburg Address

The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history. Put beside it, all the whoopings of the Websters, Sumners and Everetts seem gaudy and silly. It is eloquence brought to a pellucid and almost child-like perfection—the highest emotion reduced to one graceful and irresistible gesture. Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous.

But let us not forget that it is oratory, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it! Put it into the cold words of everyday life! The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination — “that government of the people, by the people, for the people,” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i. e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into battle an absolutely free people; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and vote of the rest of the country—and for nearly twenty years that vote was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely any freedom at all. Am I the first American to note the fundamental nonsensicality of the Gettysburg address? If so, I plead my aesthetic joy in it in amelioration of the sacrilege.

Today (September 12) is H.L. Mencken’s birthday. The “Sage of Baltimore” (pictured above) was born on September 12 in 1880 and is regarded by many as one of the most influential American journalists, essayists, and writers of the early 20th century. To recognize the great political writer on the 142nd anniversary of his birthday, here are 17 of my favorite Mencken quotes:

1. Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.

2. A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.

3. A politician is an animal that can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground.

4. Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.

5. Democracy is also a form of worship. It is the worship of jackals by jackasses.

6. Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.

7. Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

8. Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.

9. If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.

10. For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

11. The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

12. As democracy is perfected, the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

13. The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false face for the urge to rule it. Power is what all messiahs really seek: not the chance to serve.

14. No democratic delusion is more fatuous than that all men are capable of reason, and hence susceptible to conversion by evidence.

15. Communism, like any other revealed religion, is largely made up of prophecies.

16. The one permanent emotion of the inferior man is fear – fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable. What he wants above everything else is safety.

17. When a new source of taxation is found it never means, in practice, that the old source is abandoned. It merely means that the politicians have two ways of milking the taxpayer where they had one before.

The End of the Nation-State

The nation-state is coming to its end. And thank god for that.

For five hundred years, since the emergence of Spain and England as more than a collection of defeated princedoms and duchies but coherent entities with shared customs, religions, allegiances, and language, the nation-state has been the way most societies have ordered their politie

Indeed, nowadays there are as many as 195 recognized states in the United Nations, but many of those are known as failed states–Somalia, Haiti, Syria, and Yemen, for example—and one organization that measures such things, a Fund for Peace think tank in America, found in 2023 that two dozen others are so fragile that they cannot provide a full range of basic state functions, plus another 84 that have one or more warning signs of failure. In other words, the arrangement of government by nations that the West has foisted on the world has not been much of a success, in view of the fact that in fully 64 per cent there is no fully cohesive state and in many of the others either internal or external pressures have eroded the essentials of such a state.

But we don’t have to go traipsing around to find the best example: it is here. The America of 2024 could no longer be called a nation, in the sense of a common culture, common loyalties, common beliefs, common religion, common ideology, common vision, common allegiance, or even common language.  It does not have a common agreement on what marriages should be or how many genders there are (ABC news in 2024 counted 53 in use), or what the country’s history has been or even what year it started, or what constitutes a crime; it does not have a working system for public education in any state; it does not even have defended borders, the minimum task that a civil body must fulfill to be a nation.

People might move around as usual, some facades in the Washington Potemkin village might still be standing, but the core, the nation that was supposed to be at the heart of it all, is slowly vanishing.  In the U. S., as in most European countries, loyalty to nation has quietly withered away, to be replaced by loyalty to a cause, a race, a religion, a job, an ideology, or simply a market. Patriotism is for posing politicians.

Public confidence in the institutions of the nation is at an all-time low, with those professing great or a lot of trust in the Supreme Court at 27 per cent, the Presidency 26 per cent and the Congress 8 per cent;  the three branches of government in America muster trust from less than a quarter of its people, what we might dismiss caustically as “like a Third-World country.” Other areas fare hardly better:  newspapers gain only 18 per cent and TV news 14 per cent; banks, public schools and organized labor earn 26 per cent. In fact taken all together, only a little over a quarter of the American public can muster confidence in any of the systems and organizations that run their lives. They do not trust them.

It comes as no surprise then, to know that rates of suicide, alcohol use, and drugs are at all-time highs in 2024.  Suicide rates have increased every year of the 21st century, standing at more than 50,000 people in 2024—and here’s the indicator of the depth of the problem: the large majority of them are white men, and many of those in the 55 to 70 age range, just the population that should be running the country; the other large group were adolescents, just the population that should be inheriting it.  Drug deaths—not suicides, accidents—are running about 110,000 in these past few years, a great many from fentanyl, originating in China (which was simultaneously poisoning American youth through TikTok), and opioids, legal and illegal.  Alcohol “use disorder” (addiction, sickness) affected almost 30 million Americans, and more than 140,000 died each year.  Two-thirds of all adults then were either addicted to drugs or liquor or had someone in the family who was—that’s around 175 million people, an astounding figure.

The American economy is teetering, no matter what Jerome Powell professes, with the American dollar threatened abroad by the rise of the growing BRICS alliance using other currencies –Brazil, Russia, India, China, and now with Saudi Arabia and theUnited Arab Emirates—and the national debt crippling faith in the Federal Reserve system at home.  Month by month it has gotten through the post-pandemic years, largely dependent on creative fiddling by the hedge-fund-and-big-bank accord rather than manufacturing or production of anything, but the basic sickness of the economy was immune to healing.  No one could be confident that the teetering was going to end, and almost everyone realized that the national instruments, including Congress and the Presidency, were helpless—and the national debt, at the bottom of it all, was an astounding $34 trillion, and mounting every year.

In the March 2024 issue of Chronicles magazine, its managing editor wondered that no one was talking about observing the 250th anniversary of the country’s birth in 2026, although the Bicentennial in 1976 was a much-ballyhooed event with large public support.  No one. “Perhaps,” she said, “Americans don’t want to take part in the hypocrisy of celebrating the ‘birthday’ of an already dead regime….I don’t mean that the country called the United States no longer exists. I mean that its soul has been drained out…

“We cannot, rightly, call this doppelganger going by the name ‘United States of America’ the same regime as the regime of our founders. Celebrating the occasion of America’s birth as if it had not already slipped away and become something else is to take part in a lie.”

As in the U.S., so in most of the other nations of the West, including those of Europe.  No country was without its “populist” uprising, consisting of those left out of the “neoliberal” techno-economy of the 21st century whose earnings hadn’t even kept up with inflation.  What little remained of borders in the European Union were shattered by waves of mass migration from the Middle East and Africa in the 2010’s, and as in America common cultural, linguistic, and religious ties were overwhelmed, and nationalism as a unifying ideal ceased to exist.

On top of it all, an organization centered in Davos, Switzerland, the World Economic Forum, had been working since the 1970’s with considerable financial clout to create a world managed by multinational corporations and non-governmental organizations, working toward a “Great Reset” in which there would be a “General Redesign of Power” and centralized property ownership—in other words, a world government  without nations—or borders—at all.  It has great influence at the World Health Organization, where a new Pandemic Treaty threatens nation sovereignty, and the World Bank, failing in its attempts to sustain nations everywhere, and it has globalist allies in important positions throughout the richer nations.

The death of the nation state may not come with a bang, and its last, declining whimpers may take a few more years to be final.  But the patient is dying, and every sign is that its final days are near. It served its usefulness for quite some time, but it’s proven useless now. Requiem for a long time in pace.

This Should Be Required Reading In Every U.S. History Course

Don’t Miss The Political Truths That Nobody Wants To Know

Joe Biden and Abe Lincoln — The Similarities Are Uncanny

By Kevin Orlin Johnson, Ph.D.

May 27, 2024

Looking up at the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial

Headlines are so contentious these days, even vicious, one way or the other.  But, in fairness, nobody can rightly say that Joe Biden is the first president in our history to weaponize federal agencies to censor political speech, or even to indict or imprison his political opponents.  Abraham Lincoln was.

Most Americans find it hard to reconcile that with everything else that we’ve learned about Lincoln.  But in fact there’s a long train of abuses across the Lincoln administration, with ample documentation that’s always been available — just ignored.  A good place to start is John A. Marshall’s American Bastile:  A History of the Illegal Arrests and Imprisonment of American Citizens in the Northern and Border States on Account of Their Political Opinions During the Late Civil War (Philadelphia 1883).

Then there are the private letters, diaries, and memoirs that relate how the Lincoln administration posted armed troops at the polling places across the North, ready to arrest anybody who picked up a Democrat ballot.  How Lincoln soldiers kicked in the doors of opposition candidates at midnight and dragged them away to military prisons a thousand miles away, without charge or habeas corpus, leaving Republicans to run unopposed.  How they smashed the presses of opposition — or even just accurate — newspapers.  Posted armed guards in churches to ensure that only the sermons written by the Secretary of War were proclaimed from the pulpit — and pistol whipped any clergyman who strayed, dragging him bloody through the congregation and off to those same distant prisons.

Well, even the standard histories of the time tell how the administration cut off the South’s trade with all parts of the world, and declared themselves invested with power to legislate in all cases whatsoever.  How they affected to render the military independent of and superior to the civil power, keeping among Americans, North and South, standing armies, quartering large bodies of armed troops in people’s houses, protecting soldiers from punishment even for murder while depriving citizens of the benefits of trial by jury — took away our charters, abolished our most valuable laws, and altered fundamentally the forms of our governments — plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people — in short, how the Lincoln administration combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws, running through practically the whole list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence four score and seven years before.

Best documented and most outrageous, there’s the overlooked case of Clement Vallandigham, sitting Representative of Ohio, arrested, imprisoned, tried by a military tribunal on vacant charges and transported contrary to the First Amendment and Art. I Sec. 6 (“The Senators and Representatives shall … be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and … for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place”, you know).  But his was only one of thousands of such cases — all of them in the North, where the Lincoln administration still had its civil authority, and most in states that had voted the Party into office, where state and local officials wouldn’t interfere.

Of course, like Biden and Carter and quite a few other recent incumbents, Lincoln had very little idea of what was being wrought in his name.  His handlers had chosen him as a candidate explicitly because they themselves were too well known to be electable and he was a complete non-entity.  His brief but famous speeches were written by others to be read off under strict orders to never speak extemporaneously.  Nobody attended his posted cabinet meetings; his secretaries ignored his scattershot and usually trivial orders, and normally Secretary of State William H. Seward told the president what was going to be done, or really what had been done.

Most interesting in that line, there’s Seward’s troubling “Some thoughts for the President’s consideration” of April 1, 1861.

“My system is built upon this idea as a ruling one,” Seward wrote, “namely that we must Change the question before the Public from one upon Slavery, or about Slavery for a question upon Union or Disunion.”

In other words, from what would be regarded as a Party question to one of Patriotism or Union

The occupation or evacuation of Fort Sumter, although not in fact a slavery, or a party question is so regarded

I would therefore terminate it as a safe means for changing the issue.

Lincoln replied that same day:  “I do not perceive how the re-inforcement of Fort Sumpter would be done on a slavery, or party issue”.  So they changed it.

Well, clearly, if you can’t do what you want to do in your war on the pretext of slavery — if you can change the pretext for your war from slavery to something else — then slavery wasn’t the real reason for your war in the first place.

That correspondence has always been plainly on the record — it’s in Roy P. Basler’s Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Rutgers 1955), volume 4, pages 316-318 — but Lincoln Studiers and qualified historians alike have uniformly ignored it, as indeed they’ve ignored the affidavit in which Lincoln ordered the sale of his slaves.

That’s a pivotal document that I found uncatalogued in a cardboard box at the Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago and reproduced in my book, The Lincolns in the White House.  Nobody has disputed the affidavit’s authenticity.  It’s now included in the online Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln, doc. no. 137259, in Parker v. Richardson et al., case L05935.  Yet everybody in Lincoln Studies persistently ignores it, too.

A few who have mentioned it try to push it aside as out of context, although it’s impossible to misconstrue the plain statement that “Abraham Lincoln and Mary his wife … are willing that the slaves mentioned in the Bill shall be sold on such terms as the Court may think advisable.”  Some few others have tried to bury it under misinformation about the relevant standing law of that time and place, as if to relieve Lincoln of any volition or intent.  Why, he never even knew about it, really.

But the laws are as plainly documented as the sale itself and all of Lincoln’s own acts and statements about slavery.  But so far nobody has published a revision of his stance.  In fact, nobody has published a revision of anything about Lincoln for a century and a half.  Even Stalin and Mussolini, even the German dictator, get their histories updated at least once in a generation.  Not Lincoln.

That seems inexplicable.  But, based on discussions with, and the shrieks of, professional Lincoln Studiers, I always cite two important studies that may explain it.  In 1949 J. S. Bruner and Leo Postman, in their “On the Perception of Incongruity:  A Paradigm” (Journal of Personality 18:206 ff.), discovered an unexpected fact.  If we’re taught a limited catalogue of possibilities — they used the normal four-suit deck of cards — then we are simply unable to perceive anything that doesn’t fit that classification.  We’re all taught that Lincoln was a lifelong and even a passionate abolitionist, so the ample documentation of his real attitude and his real actions, including his ownership and sale of slaves, simply does not exist in the universe as we Americans can see it.  Yet there it is.

Then in 1999 David Dunning and Justin Kruger came up with another principle that governs Lincoln Studies.  In their “Unskilled and Unaware of It:  How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77:1121 ff.), they showed that people who — how can we say this — people too stupid to — well, let’s say that incompetence in any given pursuit will predictably extend to prevent the person’s perception of his own incompetence.

That principle shapes academic fields because it sorts potential students.  A smart kid taking the basic course in a field that makes no sense will either move to a field more logically rigorous or, less frequently, stay on for an easy ride.  But classes in that field will be filled largely by students who can’t understand that it makes no sense.  And those who most uncritically parrot the professors’ nonsense will proceed, lauded and well referenced, to grad school, and they’ll ultimately succeed to those professorial chairs.

And all along the way they’ll be unable to perceive any counter evidence and — their reputations being their primary concern — they’ll fight like sunlit vampires to keep anybody from publishing any of it once it’s pointed out to them.

In Lincoln Studies they go as far as burning that evidence.  Henry Horner, Vice President of the Abraham Lincoln Association and Governor of Illinois; Oliver R. Barrett, President of the Board of Trustees of the Illinois State Historical Library; and Robert Todd Lincoln himself are all on record as destroying whole trunks full of original documents, most of them from Lincoln’s own hand, and Mary Todd’s.  Lincoln’s prolific biographer Rev. William E. Barton stole whole carloads of documents and rare books from public repositories — his loot filled actual railroad boxcars — to keep honest historians from even knowing that they exist.  That’s where I found the affidavit.

Still, the assertion that the Party undertook the War to abolish slavery is immovable.  It’s by far the touchiest point in all of this:  you have only to present documentation articulating objectively anything to do with slavery, and the full weight of denial slams down upon you.

It seems usually to be a case for Dunning and Kruger, or more charitably for Bruner and Postman.  The documents, of course, deflate the assertion; they show uniformly that Lincoln throughout his private life aspired to ownership, and throughout his public life promised strictly never to interfere with slavery where it existed.

It’s explicit in his First Inaugural, when he repeated and then reaffirmed his consistent statement:  “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.  I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”  So either he was no enemy of slavery, or Honest Abe was a liar.

We have only to read the Emancipation Proclamation and think about what it says, precisely, and then clarify the resulting puzzlement over this baffling text, also explicitly contrary to our expectations and riddled with loopholes and prevarications as it is, by studying the context of its genesis and its reception by the foreign powers that received it, and derided it or even mocked it as the shabbiest and most heartless humbug.

In fact, the simple chronology shows that Lincoln had even less to do with emancipation than he had to do with anything else.  The Thirteenth Amendment was pushed through Congress by the Radical Republicans led by James Mitchell Ashley of Ohio and Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, Lincoln’s fierce opponents within the Party.  Lyman Trumbull of Illinois was instrumental, too, and you may remember that he won a seat in the Senate in 1855 by running as an anti-slavery candidate in clear distinction against Lincoln.

Nor was the Amendment swept along on a wave of popular support.  The Radicals resorted to trying to change the rules for passage of a proposed amendment; they failed, but in 1864 it failed in the House to get the two-thirds majority required.  This is what prompted Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont to start a third party calling for abolition, in frank contrast to the Republicans.  The struggle to ratify the Amendment didn’t end until December 6, 1865, more than eight months after Lincoln was killed, with the Radicals fully in control of the only effective government in the land.

Well, after the War the whole history of the Amendment and of abolition, of Reconstruction and civil rights, is a tangle almost impenetrable, with nobody on the right side of anything and everybody doing the very opposite of what the Revised Standard Version claims.  Here we only have space enough to follow the normal method of Lincoln Studies, and walk silently around it.

We should remember, too, that Lincoln never advocated equal rights for African Americans, either — “even when you cease to be slaves,” he told a delegation of Black leaders at the White House on August 14, 1862, “you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race.”

That, too, gets sandburged into obscurity — Lincoln didn’t mean that, Lincoln abandoned the idea — Lincoln freed the slaves.  But did mean it, and he went farther.  “But for your race among us there could not be war,” he told them, “although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other.”

And he kept at it.  Only one day before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation he signed a contract with Florida planter Bernard Kock to ship five thousand freedmen to the bleak little Île à Vache off the coast of Haiti.  That first shipment suffered horribly from starvation and disease, and a quarter of them died.

Despite that atrocity he brought us once again to the brink of war by chartering another ship, without due process, without regular governmental contract procedure, without even consultation with his cabinet or the Monroe Doctrine, to dump free Black families on the shores Chiriquí Province on the Isthmus of Panama to work coal mines and establish a new colony, to be called Linconia.  That move also failed when Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica threatened to repel the expedition with armed force.

And Lincoln Studies’ standard texts notwithstanding, he never abandoned the idea of deporting all Americans of African descent to the Caribbean or “back” to Africa.  Only four days before his death he told Gen. “Spoons” Butler that he could “hardly believe that the South and North can live in peace, unless we can get rid of the negroes”.

Why does this matter?  Because both Democrats and Republicans — both sides of the Uniparty, some would say — are tussling for control of a government thoroughly reconstituted after the War.  That War can’t be justified by any principle of law — again, it was itself the same long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, that we find in the Declaration.  But everybody will agree that slavery is an evil, irreformable and unjustifiable; so if the War was about slavery, then the government that emerged after winning the War is right and unquestionably good.  If you criticize that government, then you obviously hate Blacks and want to reinstitute slavery, because this government was founded on the abolition of slavery.

Yet nobody denies that the War swept away the Constitution as it had stood before.  Instantly after Appomattox the Party, exultant in what it called its “perpetual ascendancy”, stood Lincoln next to Washington as the Father of the Country.  Within months they pushed Washington aside, replacing the foundational history of Washington’s administration with the myths of Lincoln’s — even today politicians, all of them, justify their positions with incessant references to Lincoln but never a mention of Washington.  How could they mention him?  That would lead directly to the Constitution.

The War was basically the same as we see in any number of other régimes throughout history and around the world:  a roundly unpopular minority party winning control of the government, by any means necessary, and weaponizing every agency, military and civil alike, to secure themselves in power immune to ballots.  On any pretext, which can change to follow the fortunes of war.

For the Party, it was a fortunate war indeed.  For the rest of the century we had an unbroken series of victorious President-Generals:  General of the Army Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. Rutherford B. Hayes, Maj. Gen. James A. Garfield, Gen. Chester A. Arthur, Brig. Gen. Grover Cleveland, Brig. Gen. Benjamin Harrison, Bvt. Maj. William McKinley, who was too young to make it to General before Appomattox — when we see this pattern overseas we sneer at whatever tin-pot República de la Banana was laughable enough to let that happen.

Those decades are never understood as the predictable aftermath of a violent military coup d’état.  It was a time when the Party was still working out how to perpetuate a revolution while preserving the form of the ancien régime.  Beyond the civil disturbances that erupted at every election, think of the monkey business with the Electoral College to get General Hayes into office in 1876, which was fairly typical of elections at every level in those days.  A little later and nobody remembered how things had been before — “A generation born since Abraham Lincoln died has already reached manhood and womanhood,” as the Party’s chief propagandist Richard Watson Gilder said.  By then the Party’s control was absolute and its bipartisan unity indivisible.

Today we wonder at the state of the Union, but we forget that régimes imposed that way by such parties invariably fail, and fail catastrophically.  When they fail, the government doesn’t do anything that it was constituted to do, while everything that it does is not just unconstitutional but bungled.  When they fail, every problem facing their people — economic, educational, social, cultural, security, every problem — is caused by the purposeful acts of that government.  When they fail, every year starts looking a lot like 1865.

Kevin Orlin Johnson is the author of The Lincolns in the White House:  Slanders, Scandals, and Lincoln’s Slave Trading Revealed and Mrs. Lincoln’s Recovery:  How Trauma, Malpractice, and a Despicable Son Destroyed a First Lady’s Reputation.  Both are available at bookstores everywhere and at for fast delivery.

Copyright © Kevin Orlin Johnson, Ph.D.

The Reckoning

Dike and Nemesis, by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon

“But let’s be clear what happens to you and your family when old ghosts in new garments seize power, [who] come for the freedoms you thought belonged to you . . .” — Remarks by President Biden to the Morehouse College Class of 2024

Oh, we and our families get it, Mr. President, starting with our recognition that your speechwriters’ characterizations of “MAGA Republicans” as racist fascists led by a new Grand Wizard are, in fact, chiaroscuro projections of themselves. And of you.

Can it be, Mr. President, that in your long life no one has stood before you, as Nathan stood before David, to proclaim that “You are the man”? That you are that man — the “old ghost” of Marxists past, wearing a new-spun garment made from that synthetic fabric known as DEI, the material so flattering that it allows Antifa, BLM, transsexual and Pro-Hamas thugs to view themselves in the mirror as saints, and that transforms globalist Titans into saviors of the world?

Of course, it would be equally true to point out that you are also that man in Prud’hon’s painting above, making off with a stolen garment, like David’s stolen wife, and with it another man’s life and identity. When your new garment endears you with one audience but not with another, it’s always good to be able to slip into something more traditional and familiar, as you did at Morehouse College in wearing the mantle of a Martin Luther King Era champion of Civil Rights, ill-fitting as that garment might be.

We get it, Mr. President, you’re a serial plagiarist who can steal anything from anyone. Something old, something new — whatever works in the moment, and whatever helps line your pockets and consolidate your power.

And if you are the man in this painting, we’re the guy on the ground, whom neither the police nor the courts are any longer able or willing to protect, from whom you and your cartel have stolen everything from elections to our urban parks and playgrounds, which you are filling up with every manner of human filth.

“Let’s be clear,” you say? By all means. It’s time to take off those “aviator” sunglasses and raise your eyes, Mr. President. Somewhere on “a street called Straight,” an Ananias could be waiting for you, to remove the scales from those eyes.

And what you might see then, as in this painting, is that she is coming for you — that winged, dark-faced goddess from whom there is no escape. Who carries a measuring rod (or tally stick) and scales, and wields a whip or a sword by which to mete out what is due, in proportion to what is deserved.

She is Nemesis, and it is she who bends the long arc of the Universe toward justice. Implacable justice.

And, lest you think she is confined to Greek mythology, it is she who, with the disembodied hand of a man, wrote the writing on the wall beheld by Belshazzar in the Book of Daniel — You have been tried in the balance and found wanting.

She is universal, Mr. President, sensed by every soul across the spectrum of humankind, who for whatever reason fears a reckoning.

Surely your Catholic Faith, Mr. President, with its notion of mortal sin, has alerted you to her presence.

Surely you have heard phrases like “poetic justice” and expressions like “What goes around comes around.” Surely you know what they mean.

But perhaps you don’t. You pretend not to know what Donald Trump meant when he used the term blood bath. “What the hell is that about?!” you shout, doing your demagogic best to inspire fears of a Reign of Terror should Trump prevail. Never mind that he was speaking metaphorically of an economic downturn following your kleptocratic and foolish policies. Never mind that when he said he would be a dictator, but only on Day One, he was parodying your own conduct on your first day in office.

You pretend also that the judgment of the Supreme Court doesn’t apply to your effort to buy votes by dismissing student debt with taxpayer dollars. What the hell do they know, these servants of Lady Justice, who like Nemesis holds a balance and a sword? They say I can’t do it, but I’m going to find a way to do it. To hell with The Take Care Clause. I did away with the Nation’s borders, and no one did squat about it.

But she is not no one, and she’s coming, Mr. President. With winged haste and fury. You may be near death, but do not think that Death can cheat her.

“The prayers of a righteous man availeth much,” you said to the Morehouse graduates. Are you that man? Who will say so? Who will testify to your “fundamental decency,” that you have found so lacking in your political opponent that you have unleashed every weapon in your Justice Department in an effort to imprison or at least impugn him?

When your hands are clutching your Rosary, beseeching the Mother of God to pray for you in the hour of your death, will she be hearing the voice of a righteous man? Or that of just one more of us who continue to crucify Her Son?

Do you beseech that son — O My Jesus, forgive us our sins, Save us from the fires of hell —while simultaneously flogging his Evangelical and Rad-Trad Catholic followers as “domestic terrorists” and “MAGA extremists”? And while incongruously making the Sign of the Cross in bizarre contexts and settings, as at pro-abortion rallies?

You have become a Clown Catholic. And a Cartoon President.

What good have you done for anyone? How will this end well?

It can’t. It won’t.

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