Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Nothing by Nica Lalli

This is a short memoir that focuses on the spiritual journey towards atheism taken by one Jewish woman living in New York. In it, she recaps a number of experiences in her early and adolescent life that made her question the faith her parents tried to instill in her. Most of them are amusing, and some of them contain seeds of the struggle she will have later in life.

For example, here she finds herself questioning God’s motives after trying and failing to nurse an injured bird back to health.

Well, I reasoned, maybe he isn’t so nice and kind after all. Maybe he is cruel and mean. I had seen boys who would kill things just to watch how it went. They would pull the wings off flies or the legs off daddy longlegs and then watch the insect suffer. I couldn’t stand that even though I hated daddy longlegs; they had ruined many a camping trip by crawling on me and making me itchy and frightened of going to sleep. Maybe God was like that; maybe he killed things to watch what happened.

I used to think that, too. When I got a little older and into Star Trek, I started connecting these thoughts about God with the character, Nagilum, from the Next Generation episode Where Silence Has Lease. “How interesting.”

But these stories, while amusing, were not what drew me to the book. That I found a teaser on the back cover of the paperback version.

In her adult life, her difficulties with religion continue as her family’s spiritual ambivalence conflicts with a new, Christian in-law. In the end, Lalli finds the courage to define what she is rather than what she is not. By delving into these universal themes through the lens of family relationships and the culture of “God Bless America,” Lalli finds that nothing is a philosophy to be embraced rather than feared.

That sounded interesting to me. A philosophy built on “nothing,” that was both satisfying and worthy to be embraced. I really wanted to see that rabbit come out of Lalli’s hat.

The stories from her adult life are less amusing. Engaging, yes, but more serious in their tone and implications. As the back cover promised, a Christian sister-in-law marries into her family, and what follows are years of misunderstanding, fear, and rejection on both sides of that relationship. Things sort of bubble along, until September 11, 2001.

Like a lot of New Yorkers, September 11 affects Lalli in ways us Midwesterners can probably never understand. Here’s an excerpt from her description of that horrible day.

I was home all day, except for those few minutes I was at school to get the children after the ash from the collapsed buildings stopped raining down on our neighborhood. Greg, who had seen the second plane hit the building from the elevated track of the F train, was stuck in Manhattan and had to walk home. While I waited for him, I sat at the dining room table and watched burned bits of paper float down through the smoke that blew overhead and spoke to anyone who managed to get through on the phone.

And much as many casual believers more forcefully embraced their faith as a result of that day, Lalli, like many unbelievers, grew more troubled at the influence of religion on her society and political culture. It forces her to figure out what she does stand for, if she doesn’t stand for the religion of her parents or her sister-in-law.

Frustratingly, there is never a clear statement of what these core beliefs are. Near the very end, this is about as close as she gets.

Because I realize that people are all I really have. Other people are what make my life. They give it meaning. The interactions with other people bring me a wealth of emotions and confirm my place in the world. It is other people who make that place for me, each person shifts and turns to allow me in, to make space for me in this crowded world. These people are my family—they are nearest to me and mean the most to me. These people are my friends, my acquaintances, my neighbors—even the smallest nod of the head in greeting counts as interaction and adds to the experience of my day.

I could never value gods above humans. I could never prefer to spend time with deities and miss opportunities to connect with people. My sister-in-law once told me that God was more important to her than her own son. I spent months trying to figure out how that could be true. And I still puzzle over it. I cannot even think that there is a God who would want us to care more about him than our own offspring.

I’ll have to confess, that doesn’t resonate very strongly with me. I mean, I mostly agree with it—there’s a pretty strong streak of humanism that runs through me. But I was ultimately disappointed with its lack of power. What should have been a climactic reveal—a true epiphany for those searching for truth in a world without gods—instead strikes me as more a restatement of the obvious.

Of course people are more important than gods, I felt like saying at the end. If you don’t believe gods are real, than who else is there for you to worry about? And conversely, if you do believe gods are real—I mean really real, like “creator of heaven and earth, ready to stuff you in the fiery furnace” real—then of course you’re going to think allegiance to their doctrines is more important that your relationship with the mere mortals that surround you. What exactly is there to puzzle over about that? Isn’t the fact that millions of people think that way kind of obvious?

What’s more important—to me at least—is how you act and how you treat other people. Some people on both sides of the believe/don’t believe divide treat people well, just as some people on both sides treat people like crap. I, for one, don’t see much of a connection between belief (or non-belief) and being a supportive member of our human society. Most of the world may think that the only way to measure goodness is on the believe/don’t believe scale, but I think that’s a false comparison.

It’s not clear to me what Lalli thinks of that.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Empire by Robert V. Remini

I was only five pages into the preface for this book and I thought I was in deep trouble. The author, from all other accounts one of the foremost Jackson scholars of our time, is recalling a trip he made decades ago to Spain to review some newly unearthed documents.

I was ecstatic. I could hardly believe my good fortune. What made it so exciting was that here was a sizeable collection of letters written to and from Jackson and the Spanish governor in Florida at the time of Jackson’s seizure of Florida in 1818, and they included correspondence from one Spanish official to another about the American invasion of their colony. I was fascinated as I learned the history of my country as seen through the eyes of aliens, and enemy aliens at that. And to my surprise and horror, I found that they did not think Americans were heroic, generous, kind, trustworthy, or any of those noble characteristics Americans believed about themselves in the 1970s. Quite the opposite. They saw them as thieving, murderous cut-throats, out to steal their empire. I remember muttering to myself, as if responding to the accusations, “You’ve got it all wrong; we’re the good guys.”

Upon reading that, I thought to myself, “This guy’s a historian?” I dreaded the idea that I was in for a long (this book is actually volume one of a three-volume biography on Jackson, all three volumes of which are on my book shelf, courtesy of a long-expired membership in the History Book Club) puff piece on the superior wisdom and nobility of this second generation forefather who so righteously expanded the reach of the grand American experiment.

Fortunately, it got better. But only to a degree.

The Professional Historian

On one hand, Remini proves to be a capable historian, skilled at placing his subject in the context of both his times and ours. For example, here’s an honest and well-crafted character study from one of the middle chapters. The occasion in question is Jackson’s decision to walk his army back to Nashville from Natchez after being called up prematurely for the war that would come in 1812.

Ironically, the disastrous journey to Natchez and back proved a personal triumph for Jackson. All the things the volunteers admired about their General were amplified before their eyes: the determination, the fortitude, the personal courage, the strength of leadership, the personal identity with their small successes and many hardships, the consideration, the patience and understanding. What it all added up to was the fact that they admired him and trusted him, and so if he said they would walk from Natchez to Nashville, then they would do it.

But something else emerged on the painful road home. It was a quality in Jackson’s character that is essential to an understanding of his subsequent military successes. The quality had probably always been there but now it suddenly billowed out into full view. That quality was will power. Not the ordinary kind. Nothing normal or even natural. This was superhuman. This was virtually demonic. This was sheer, total, concentrated determination to achieve his ends. So if he determined to march his men back to Nashville he would get them there even if it meant carrying every last one of the on his back.

Andrew Jackson was not a great general. He was better than most of the commanders available in 1812, but that hardly does him credit. What distinguished him and basically made the difference between victory and defeat on the battlefield was his absolute determination to win—at whatever cost. As a consequence he was capable of extraordinary feats of courage and daring and perseverance in the face of incredible odds. Nothing less than victory was acceptable. Defeat was unthinkable.

Remini does well here, balancing the good with the bad, reporting the facts as he uncovered them and understood them to be true. Yes, Jackson was a special individual, but not necessarily and automatically a great one. Like most people, he was a mix of talents and foibles—the only thing that makes Jackson exceptional is the historical circumstances that filtered those talents and foibles to the extent they did.

One thing I always find interesting about these massive biographies of pivotal political figures is the treatment given to their childhood and developmental years. The better historians stick to a clear, “just report the facts” style, rarely making judgments about the role the trails and traumas of youth had in shaping the adult. And again, Remini generally does a good job here, albeit acknowledging that many previous Jackson biographers have not.

Here’s an example. At fifteen, Jackson and his older brother, Robert, were soldiers in the Revolutionary War, and they were taken prisoner, where they both suffered from neglect and malnutrition. When they were finally exchanged, their mother, Elizabeth, came to collect them.

Elizabeth blanched when she saw her sons, so wasted were they by disease and malnutrition. Robert, in serious condition, could neither stand nor sit on horseback without support. Elizabeth procured two horses, placed the dying Robert on one and rode the other herself, keeping careful check on Robert to prevent him from collapsing to the ground. Poor Andrew had to walk the forty-five miles home barefoot and without a jacket, his body throbbing with pain. On the last leg of the journey a driving rain drenched the trio. And that was the final blow. The smallpox that had been raging within Andrew burst out in the loathsome sores so typical of the disease. Somehow Elizabeth got her two sons home and put them to bed. Two days later Robert Jackson was dead and his brother delirious and in mortal danger.

Jackson survived (obviously), but as soon as he was strong enough, his mother left him to help nurse other prisoners of war, including two of her nephews, in Charleston. There, she caught cholera and quickly died herself. Remini dutifully reports what others have assumed about Jackson’s character as a result of this unfortunate incident.

He was fifteen at the time of his mother’s death and still recovering from a serious illness. Did he resent his mother’s departure? Did he regard it as abandonment? As rejection? As punishment? Did he think she cared more about her nephews than her own son to leave him when he still needed her? One writer contends that it produced in him a buried rage against his mother for having abandoned him and removed her protection, that Andrew consequently developed “an assertive self, mistrustful of dependence and suspicious of the world.”

One writer contends that, but Remini?

One thing is certain: he suffered a staggering blow, one he probably never understood, one he could never mention or discuss. If he did feel rage against Elizabeth, he disguised it or rechanneled it. Nothing in his writing suggests resentment against her. Nowhere does he blame her for deserting him. Early biographers claim that he “deeply loved” his mother, which may or may not be true. But they noticed something else which was definitely true: he “imbibed a reverence for the character of woman.” He respected women and treated them courteously—far beyond what was expected of him as a proper gentleman. If he hated his mother, would he so revere “the characters of woman”? Would he treat them with such marked respect and kindness?

Good questions. And like a good historian, since it is ultimately conjecture, Remini allows to reader to formulate his own answer.

A Snarky Aside

Speaking momentarily about Jackson’s writings, I wanted to quickly mention how incomprehensible some of them are—especially those (oddly) in which he was trying his best to be understood. His written correspondence quite simply atrocious. Here he is responding on a matter of honor:

Your sacrificing all private confidence by making publick my private letter merits & receives my utmost indignation, Sir the baseness of your heart in violating a confidenc reposed in you in an hour of intimate friendship, should as I conceive it was between you and me, by the most solemn obligation will bring down the indignation of the thinking part of mankind upon you & the thunderbolt you were preparing for me will burst upon your own head, it will occasion that part of mankind, that heretofore view’d you worthy of publick confidence to pause a moment & reflect how far a man is worthy of publick confidence who has violated all kind of private at the Shrine of malice occasioned by goaded disappointment, the Western world will think for themselves like freemen as they are & view the man who had made such sacrifice as you have done, capable of betraying all publick confidence to private interest.

To which I say, huh?

The Politics of Statehood

So Remini is able to win me back after his stumble in the preface through the obvious balance he is attempting to bring to his subject. Those concerns recede into the background and I get more engaged with the actual details of Jackson’s life. I discover that Jackson was one of only a handful of influential men who helped shape and form the new state of Tennessee. This is a fascinating section of the book and of Jackson’s life, primarily because Tennessee was one of the first such states to be created and admitted to the Union under the Federal constitution.

There were a lot of details to be ironed out and, seemingly like every other event in our nation’s history, the partisan politics of their day—not ours—drove most of them to their conclusion. An interesting case in point is the question of Tennessean statehood itself. As Remini explains:

The problem was complicated further by the fact that 1796 was a presidential election year. George Washington had had enough after eight years in office; the verbal abuse he had suffered over the Jay Treaty was more than he chose to endure. The Federalist Party put forward John Adams for the presidency and the Republican Party nominated Thomas Jefferson. Since the Republicans were popular along the frontier because of their strong states’ rights position and their commitment to the needs of the farmer, the Federalists recognized that Tennessee’s admission to the Union would automatically increase Jefferson’s electoral count. There was also sectional rivalry in the presidential contest. Adams came from New England, Jefferson from the South, and Tennessee, a southern as well as a western state, would upset the balance.

As a result, there was a debate in Congress over the validity of the census Tennessee had conducted to certify that they had enough citizens to become a state. One may think that the issue at stake actually was the validity of the census, since that’s what Senators and Representatives argued about. But in fact it wasn’t. The issue was how many electoral votes each party could garner, and the census was only the football that the two teams kicked back and forth.

The House, where Republicans held the majority, liked the census. The Senate, where Federalists held sway, didn’t. The compromise eventually struck, revealed what was actually at stake. Tennessee would be admitted, but with fewer electors than it would ordinarily be entitled to, until after the federal census of 1800 (and the pending presidential election) was conducted.

The more history I read, the more episodes like this jump out at me. The modern American has lost an understanding of what truly motivated his predecessors in taking the actions they did. To us, history is nearly always just so many facts and figures. An understanding of the underlying motivations not only opens up a much richer world, it helps us realize that those long ago people were really not all that different from their modern counterparts.

The Libertarian Perspective on the Louisiana Purchase

Another parallel to modern times comes when Remini discusses the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

Although [President Thomas] Jefferson had grave doubts about the constitutionality of the purchase, he knew the alternative should any foreign power control New Orleans; it included the possibility of rebellion or treason by citizens of the southwest. “To lose our country by scrupulous adherence to written law,” he reasoned, “would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.” Burdened with fears that he was reducing the Constitution to a scrap of paper, he went ahead with the purchase anyway. But he had no choice. The safety of the Union dictated it.

To which the libertarian streak in me replied sarcastically: Of course. It’s always the “safety of the Union” that’s at stake when Presidents trample on the Constitution.

But this situation actually did make me think. Despite my kneejerk libertarianism, there is a larger point to be made. In a situation where strict adherence to the Constitution would concretely result in the destruction of the country, isn’t there an honest case to be made for the government to transcend the shackles of its founding document?

I mean, if you take the long-view, then no. If you believe that countries themselves should rise and fall rather than stain individual liberty, then of course the answer is no. Then it’s strict adherence all the way to the grave.

But if you believe the country in its current form should be preserved—which I suppose all Presidents honestly do—then doesn’t it rationally make sense to circumvent the Constitution from time to time, in order to preserve the country that cherishes it? Can we say yes to that question without that libertarian streak speaking up again? Doesn’t the Constitution define the country? And doesn’t the country you’re trying to preserve cease to exist the moment you circumvent that document?

It’s a tangled little political and philosophical puzzle, one much easier to arbitrate in the abstract than in the hard reality of the Louisiana Purchase, or the Civil War, or in the wake of 9/11.

But then Remini reveals another interesting note on the Louisiana Purchase.

In fact Britain disputed—correctly—the legality of the Louisiana Purchase. France had no right to sell it to the United States since the Treaty of San Ildefonso of 1800, by which Napoleon had forced Spain to surrender Louisiana to him, specifically stated that France would not sell or otherwise alienate the territory without first offering to return it to Spain. When Napoleon blithely ignored his own previous agreement with the Spanish government and sold Louisiana to the United States, many other nations regarded the action as illegal.

Didn’t know that. Not only did Jefferson violate the Constitution when he purchased Louisiana from France, he evidently violated international law as well.

The War of 1812 and the Making of Andrew Jackson

Jackson’s story really accelerates with the War of 1812. Today, we know almost nothing about this conflict, but to understand why it made Jackson famous, you have to understand the delicate phase of America’s development as it existed in the years before that war.

The country had entered the war with a desperate need to prove its right to independence, but the last two years seemed to prove the reverse, that the United States was only a temporary experiment in freedom, that its independence was undeserved.

And on this crumbling stage, Jackson appears, leading American troops to a smashing victory over the British at New Orleans. It was a lopsided battle, and although Jackson admittedly deserves credit for capably leading it, the effect that his victory had on his nation still seems out of proportion.

New Orleans demonstrated that the nation had the heart and the will and the strength to roundly defeat its enemies and defend its freedom. “The last six months is the proudest period in the history of the republic,” asserted one newspaper. “We … demonstrated to mankind a capacity to acquire a skill in arms to conquer ‘the conquerors of the conquerors of all’ as Wellington’s invincibles were modestly stiled. … Who would not be an American? Long live the republic! … Last asylum of oppressed humanity! Peace is signed in the Arms of Victory!”

And Jackson gets all the credit.

The nation’s faith and confidence in itself had been restored by General Andrew Jackson. He alone was responsible for giving the country back its self-respect. He had “slaughtered” a magnificent British army—over 2,000 victims, a figure that seemed incredible at that time—and repelled the greatest armada in history.

The American people, their self-confidence restored, abandoned the need to prove their right to independence. Secure in the knowledge that their freedom had been permanently won, they turned to the important tasks of building a nation. Indeed “from that time on the Union had less of the character of a temporary experiment,” something that might disappear in a stroke. “The country had also won respect abroad, and was recognized in the family of nations as it had not been before.”

In the public mind, all of this was associated with Andrew Jackson—not simply because of the magnitude of his victory over the British (although that was certainly important) but because the announcement of his colossal feat immediately preceded the announcement of the conclusion of the war. The tremendous boost to everyone’s morale that his accomplishment on the battlefield provided was followed a few days later by the news of the peace treaty—and people tended to fuse the two events together. The result was the feeling that Andrew Jackson had come like some special messenger of the Almighty to rescue His people and preserve their freedom. Small wonder that Jackson’s place in the pride and affection of the American people lasted until his death—and beyond. Small wonder that his popularity exceeded that of Washington, Jefferson, or Franklin.

I think it’s critical to understand what this victory did for Jackson—both for himself directly and, more importantly, for him in the mind of his countrymen. His fame would help him go on to do other things—some good and some not-so-good—but it was his victory at New Orleans that made him a permanent fixture in the pantheon of American heroes.

The Great White Father

Remini—I think correctly—gives Jackson credit, above all others, for engineering the circumstances which would in time result in the eviction of all native peoples from what is now the Eastern United States. It is one of the things he goes on to do with the fame he won at New Orleans, and the detailed history of the Indian wars he fought and the Indian treaties he signed constitute the second half of Remini’s overall narrative. It is sometimes a disturbing account to read, and it is here, I think, where I begin to lose respect for Remini’s objectivity.

From a chronological perspective, the peace treaty that Jackson negotiates at the end of The Creek War is the first nail in the coffin.

The Creek War and the resulting Treaty of Fort Jackson were the beginning of the end not only for the Creek Nation but for all Indians throughout the south and southwest. What Blount, Burr, and hundreds of others had failed to do, Andrew Jackson accomplished. Millions of acres of choice land had been ripped out of the Indian domain and placed under the auction hammer of the land speculator. And the Indians must remove to get out of harm’s way—for their own good. So the pattern of land seizure and removal was established. Within twenty-five years the entire family of red men, Creeks, Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Seminoles, were swept from the south and either buried under the ground or banished to the remote western country beyond the Mississippi River. And from start to finish the man most responsible for this expansion of the American empire was Andrew Jackson.

In the long history of Indians in North America the Creek War was the turning point in their ultimate destruction. The certain, the inevitable, the irreversible turn toward obliterating tribes as sovereign entities within the United States now commenced. The Creek Nation was irreparably shattered. All other tribes would soon experience the same melancholy fate.

It is a strange legacy for a man to have—lauded as he must have been by his contemporaries and by several generations following, but now coming more into infamous repute. Remini recognizes this, but it’s not clear that he sympathizes with the more modern perspective. He absolutely does not shy away from reporting Jackson’s obvious racism against the Indians. He tells us how Jackson fought ceaselessly against them, viewing them as the gravest threat to the productive growth and expansion of his country. And Remini attributes this opposition not to hatred, but rather a strange and compelling logic.

His logic was simple: Indians were savage and warlike because they possessed too much land to roam in and therefore pursued “wandering habits of life.” If the range of their activities were sharply restricted, their errant habits would gradually subside “until at last, necessity would prompt them to industry and agriculture, as the only certain and lasting means of support.” And by being industrious like white men, Indians would eventually share the blessings of civilized life. Thus, for the Indians’ own safety and welfare, it was necessary to seize their property and restrict their movement.

It can easily be argued that this logic is a fraud, a ready justification for theft—and that is true. But it is also true that Jackson and westerners like him believed the argument. Later, in precisely the same way, they would justify the removal of the Indian beyond the Mississippi River. The argument was never simply invented to serve as a coverup. It was always there, a part of their creed, a doctrine of incontestable truth.

Remini may be right in this regard. Jackson’s own statements about the threat posed by the Indian, and his nation’s obvious and fundamental right to oppose that threat, read like rhetoric many American use today when talking about terrorists. A large number of Americans for all generations, it appears, believed that the United States had and has the right to force other cultures and nations to bend to its will. In many cases, now and then, force is seen not just as necessary, but as the preferred alternative. Remini reports that sometimes, rather than forcing Indians off desirable land, the chiefs were paid to voluntarily relocate their populations.

The necessity of bribing the chiefs to obtain their land disgusted Jackson. It was not his style. He much preferred having the United States step in to impose its authority over the tribes, simply telling them what they must do. If this could not be done, he said, then he wanted no part of such negotiations. They revolted him.

Indeed, Andy. Why resort to base commerce when force is so much more noble?

At a later point, Remini makes a critical observation about Jackson’s view towards the Indians. Again, he steers carefully away from hatred and racism.

The key to understanding Jackson’s attitude toward the Indian is not hatred but paternalism. He always treated the Indians as children who did not know what was good for them. But he knew, and he would tell them, and then they must obey. If they refused, they could expect a fearful punishment from a wrathful parent.

This may be a fair comment, but then I think, Remini undercuts himself, and goes too far into excuse-making.

But there was nothing extraordinary about this paternalism. It in no way demonstrated bigotry, racism, or any other prejudice against Indians simply because they were Indians. Jackson was just as paternalistic toward his soldiers. As long as they obeyed him, as long as they demonstrated discipline and loyalty, he praised them without stint; but let them falter in their duty and he could exact the supreme penalty.

More on that “supreme penalty” business below. But the key difference here, of course, is that Jackson’s soldiers were placed under his subservient command by the duly established ethics and practices of his own society. To the best of my knowledge, the Indians were not, nor could legitimately be. At this time, they constituted people of an independent community, as separate from the people of the United States as those of France or Spain or Great Britain.

Nor was this paternalism unique to Jackson. Any number of white men, particularly government officials, practiced the same paternalistic attitude toward the Indians. It was a very common approach and the accepted mode of behavior. The Indians themselves adopted the language of paternalism and frequently spoke of themselves as children of their father, the President.

This “Great White Father” moniker is most perplexing to me. It may be true that the Indians adopted this terminology in both word and thought, but if so, it was certainly thrust upon them by the paternalistic attitude of men like Andrew Jackson. Read some of the formal statements he issued and you will begin to see not just how paternalistic, but how condescending and hostile the language was. Here’s how Remini describes the Indian reaction when General Andrew Jackson was tasked with the conquest of Florida. I’ve added the emphasis myself.

The appointment of Jackson as executioner threw the Indians into wild alarm. Many of those living on the American side of the boundary within lands claimed by the United States under the Treaty of Fort Jackson fled in terror to Florida when they heard the dreadful news of his appointment. To the Indians General Andrew Jackson had assumed the character and form of an evil spirit: He need only point at them and they perished where they stood.

“Great White Father” indeed. And how did Jackson feel about this obvious mischaracterization of his intentions?

Jackson encouraged his reputation—not as executioner but as stern father and wise judge who would protect his Indian children (he actually believed he defended Indian rights) provided they obeyed him without question and closed their ears to false friends and prophets like the English and Spanish who encouraged them in their lawlessness.

The parenthetical comments indicate to me that Remini believes Jackson was delusional—not just by our standards but by the standards of his time. Which is odd, because although Remini does not offer Jackson any absolution, he does entreat his readers not to judge him too harshly. Again, the emphasis below is mine.

The frightful blows sustained by the Indians at the hands of Andrew Jackson, supported by the United States government, in the destruction of the Southern tribes have elicited appropriate criticism and indignation from latter-day Americans. But to understand the meaning and significance of Jackson’s actions, one must view them in the context of the nineteenth century, not that of the late twentieth century. It cannot be ignored or forgotten that a powerful need existed throughout the country during Jackson’s lifetime to subdue the Indians and expel them from territory that was believed to be essential to national expansion and the defense of the country. Jackson was not only a product of that need but the man most responsible for fulfilling it. His military skill and undeviating determination combined to annihilate the Indian tribes and propel thousands of Americans across the south and west. His decree, more than any other, forever separated the white and red races.

Surely, no higher purpose can be served than national expansion and defense. I think Germany might have felt the same justification in 1937. But, more importantly, the observation that shatters Remini’s whole argument is this. Since when does paternalism lead to annihilation? And annihilation not by accident but by design? Does the father which to destroy his children? Is genocide really what’s best for them?

Yet Another Novel I’ll Never Write

Finally, it’s not unusual when reading one of these historical biographies for me to stumble across a minor episode that strikes me with the uniqueness of its human story, filling me momentarily with the desire to turn it into my next great novel. First it was Teddy Roosevelt and his son Kermit and the time they spent together on the River of Doubt. Then it was John and John Quincy Adams crossing the Atlantic for the first time on the Boston. Then it was Sarah Ellis Dorsey and the life she led and the lives she nurtured at Beauvoir. Now, it’s General Andrew Jackson and a soldier named John Woods.

During the period of Jackson’s determination to instill absolute discipline in his troops there occurred an incident that would haunt Jackson throughout his military and political life, an incident that convinced people, and indeed engraved it forever in their minds, that Andrew Jackson could be a ruthless, pitiless killer.

Could you ask for a more dramatic theme? Imagine an elderly Jackson, at the end of life and finally past his ability to influence his world and the men who populated it, still plagued with this reputation, scorned and feared by friends and neighbors alike. Looking back on the event, the story opens thus…

John Woods was hardly eighteen years of age when he enlisted in the militia. He belonged to a company that had caused considerable disciplinary problems, although apparently Woods himself took no part in the trouble. In any event, the young man was standing guard one cold, rainy February morning. After obtaining permission from an officer to leave his post, he went to his tent for a blanket. There he found that his comrades had left him his breakfast, and he calmly sat down to eat it. A few minutes later an officer entered the tent and, using abusive language, ordered him to return to his post. Woods, who had received his permission to leave his post from a different officer, refused to obey the order. An argument ensued and the officer ordered Woods’s arrest. Then the young man went berserk. He grabbed his gun and swore he would shoot the first man to lay a hand on him. As the quarreling intensified, someone informed Jackson that a “mutiny” was in progress.

The stage is set. What will our grizzled old hero do? Returned as he is by narrative to the vim and vigor of youth?

The cry “mutiny” was electrifying. Jackson bolted from his tent. “Which is the damned rascal?” he shouted. “Shoot him! Shoot him! Blow ten balls through the damned villain’s body!” In the meantime Woods had been persuaded to give up his gun and submit to arrest.

An impulse, yes. But justified, no? A rank traitor within his midst? How else should a commander react?

Most soldiers thought nothing much would some of the incident. Such things had happened before and the offender was usually dismissed without pay or drummed from the camp. Then, too, militiamen were special; they had rights no others enjoyed—such as freedom from capital punishment for mutinous actions. But Jackson was determined to make an example of Woods.

Of course he was. Rights of man? Posh! He flaunted my authority over him! He broke the chain of command!

He had Woods courtmartialed on a charge of mutiny. The young man pleaded not guilty, but the court found unanimously against him and ordered his execution. Several efforts were made to win clemency for Woods, but the stern commander turned a deaf ear. On March 14, two days after the trial, John Woods was shot to death by a firing squad in the presence of the entire army.

As well he should have been. Let that be an example to the others.

Jackson’s aide, John Reid, believed the execution had a “most salutary effect” on the other men. “That mutinous spirit,” he wrote, “which had so frequently broken into the camp, and for a while suspended all active operations” had to be crushed once and for all and “subordination observed.” “Painful” as the execution was to Jackson, “he viewed it as …essential to the preservation of good order.” It produced “the happiest effect,” Reid reported. “That opinion, so long indulged, that a militia-man was for no offence to suffer death, was, from that moment, abandoned, and strict obedience afterwards characterized the army.”

Here, here. Serves the blackguard right. But…

Many years later, when Jackson sought the presidency of the United States, the circumstances of Woods’s death were recounted in newspapers around the country in attempts to prove that Old Hickory was a butcher who could have imposed a milder sentence for Woods’s momentary rebelliousness but chose instead to snuff out his life.

Petty newspaper scribblers! What do they know of leading men into battle?

The punishment was indeed harsh. Under different circumstanced Jackson might have been more lenient—although he was most unpredictable—but his experiences of the previous December and January left his mood and temper strict and unyielding in matters of discipline. Which was understandable. He had kept a force in the field despite massive desertions and the worst possible hardships. That experience toughened him. As far as he was concerned, the troops must be made to understand their duty whatever the circumstances—even if it meant the sacrifice of a young man’s life.

Exactly! You understand, don’t you. You must!

An Iron General had been fashioned by painful experience. If possible Jackson’s already cold will and steely determination intensified. He became a relentless, driving, indefatigable machine devoted to one solitary purpose—the destruction of his country’s enemies.

And those enemies are everywhere, aren’t they? Even here on this block with me, staring into my windows while avoiding my eyes on the street. The vermin! Would I had the power now I had back then.

Maybe it’s a short story instead of a novel.

Monday, July 9, 2012


“The charm of knowledge would be small if so much shame did not have to be overcome on the road to it.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Chapter Twenty-Four


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 69,000 words Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1991. All rights reserved.

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The rain had just begun to fall when Sir Gildegarde Brisbane II fled from Farchrist Castle after his banishment and humiliation. He was lost, he knew that, and his decision had already been made, but before he went through with his desperate plans, he ran into the City Below the Castle for a final errand. He ran through the streets like a lost soul, tears mixing with the rainwater on his face. When he arrived at the house, he knocked and waited politely, feeling too ashamed and too filthy to go barging in anywhere. Amanda answered the door, and when Brisbane saw her, he almost forgot his plans and fell sobbing at her feet. But he steeled himself and kept his words short. He made only three statements. First, he said what the King had done to him. Second, he warned Amanda to flee the city before anyone caught wind of the scandal. Third, he told her he loved her. Brisbane then turned and fled into the night. It was the last time my mother ever saw my father.

+   +   +

Brisbane regained consciousness face down on the north bank of the Mystic River. He sputtered some water out of his lungs, pain lancing through his chest, and tried to lift his face out of the river mud. A rough hand pushed his head back down into the wet earth and a croaking voice sounded out in a language he did not recognize. Somebody was perched on top of him, driving a heavy knee into the small of his back and furiously tying his wrists together with some kind of cord. Brisbane was too dazed to do much of anything, just beginning to remember his plunge from the stone hand of Grecolus, into the mountain lake, and over the waterfall. The person on top of him soon had his hands secured behind his back and cruelly dragged him to his feet by pulling up on his fastened arms.

Through the river mud that must have covered his face, Brisbane saw who his captors were and where it was he had been captured. They were orks, six of them, much like the eight he and his friends had killed so far down the river so long ago. They were rough and brutish-looking, all over six feet tall and all clad in mismatched sets of black chain and platemail. Their pink pig-noses stuck out from their ugly faces like trophies and their small, up-thrusting tusks glistened with saliva. Each had a black shield decorated with a single red eye. Beyond them, Brisbane could see his surroundings and he recognized them. He must have floated unconscious down the river for quite some distance. They stood nearly in front of the cave where Brisbane and his companions had fought the ettins.

The ork holding him from behind pushed Brisbane down to his knees and stood painfully on the backs of his ankles. Brisbane cried out and, as he knelt there immobilized, the other five orks wrestled his chainmail poncho off over his head. He had lost his shield and his helmet somewhere in the river, but he was relieved to see Angelika was still strapped to his side.

His armor removed from him, the cutting of a few leather straps required to get it past his bound hands, one of the orks threw the heavy mesh over his shoulder like a blanket and another one, the largest one, stepped forward and began to undo the buckle that held Angelika to Brisbane’s belt. Brisbane fought to twist away from his captors, but the ork behind him stomped on his feet and lifted his arms to a painful elevation. Before he could do anything about it, the largest ork had taken Angelika from him and held her, still in her scabbard, out in front of himself.

For a moment, Brisbane was sure his brain was going to explode, sending gray shrapnel out of his ears and bursting his eyeballs. The sheer and utter rage he felt at having Angelika taken from him burned through him like fire and with unknown and superhuman strength, he leapt up, throwing the ork who had been standing on his ankles back into the water, and snapped the cords holding his wrists behind his back like pieces of dry kindling.

His hands were around the throat of the ork who held Angelika in a flash and Brisbane drove him to the ground, choking off his air supply as Angelika fell unnoticed to the earth.

“She’s mine!” Brisbane screamed, his voice discordant to sane ears, as he dug his fingers deep into the ork’s neck until he was certain, with a kind of giddy glee, that the ork’s skin would break and he would be able to tear vein after vein out of his neck, snapping them like guitar strings tuned too tightly.

The other orks were upon him in a moment and combined they could not drag Brisbane off their leader, the ork who had dared to touch Angelika, the unholy beast who had tried to foul that enchanted blade.

Brisbane began to laugh as he watched the ork’s eyes roll back into his head, a sickening, wailing scream that only sounded like a laugh to his own ears. The other five orks were still struggling to pull Brisbane’s hands away from their leader’s throat. They had made little progress and Brisbane began to beat the back of the ork’s head against the hard earth along the river bank.

Suddenly, a great weight came down on the back of Brisbane’s neck and he collapsed onto his victim. He swam in and out of consciousness for a moment and then jerked back to reality when he was rolled over onto his back next to the ork he had attacked. The ork who had been standing on his ankles, the one Brisbane had thrown into the river, stood dripping over him with his short, thick sword raised over his head. Just as Brisbane was sure the ork was going to bring the blade down to finish him, the ork paused, the sword frozen over his head and his eyes wide in amazement. The fight had suddenly gone out of him, and Brisbane could not fathom why he was not being killed.

Sunlight winked at him from something on his chest. In the struggle, the small silver pentacle medallion he wore around his neck had worked its way out from underneath his tunic and now lay sparkling against his chest. This is what had transfixed the ork.

Brisbane did not have the chance to take advantage of the lull. Just as he realized the cause of the ork’s hesitance, the ork dropped his sword to his side and shouted out a single word to his companions. Brisbane did not understand the word, it must have been in the ork’s own twisted tongue, but it sounded like “groo-mack.”

The remaining orks were on him in an instant. They quickly flipped him over and began to retie his hands together at the wrists, this time much more tightly and restricting, and they violently stuffed an awful-tasting gag into his mouth.

Brisbane fought as much as he could, but there was something different now. The spirit that had possessed him had passed out of his body. The ork he had strangled lay unmoving beside him. If Brisbane had killed him, he might have been the last creature Brisbane would ever kill. Before long, Brisbane was tightly tied and gagged, and completely at the mercy of the orks.

Having incapacitated their prisoner again, the orks went over to check on their fallen leader. They crudely tested his vital signs and then stood up and moved away. It was obvious there was nothing to be done. The ork was dead.

The ork who had been standing on Brisbane’s ankles, the one who had recaptured Brisbane, went over to the fallen leader and began to remove any valuables the dead ork had carried. Brisbane watched him, still laying on his stomach beside the running Mystic, as the ork removed the leader’s sword and shield from the ork’s dead grasp. He also took a small sack that had been tied at his waist. He then stood up and nodded to his companions. The four of them came over and picked up the body, each grabbing a limb, and then carried him over to the river and threw him in. The armor-laden corpse sank quickly to the bottom.

The four orks came back to what Brisbane presumed was their new leader. He barked an order at them and they wrestled Brisbane roughly to his feet. They held him up in front of their leader, and he looked Brisbane over dubiously.

Brisbane looked the ork over in turn. He tried not to let his fear show in his eyes or in his posture, but it was not easy. Brisbane was terrified. He had been taken captive by a party of orks and any animosity they might have had for him certainly had not been lessened by his strangling one of their number. Brisbane reflected on that now and had a hard time believing he had actually done it. The memory of his rage was like a dream, quickly fading and soon forgotten. It was just that when the ork had touched Angelika—

The ork. He was still staring Brisbane up and down and Brisbane became acutely aware of his own presence and surroundings. His chest hurt—every time Brisbane took a breath it felt like he was fanning a fire—and his vision was still popping with black spots from the blow he had received on the back of the neck. For the first time since he had regained consciousness, he realized it had stopped raining. The ork facing him was a huge creature, an inch or two shorter than himself, but easily massing just as much. The face of an ork was so different from that of a human Brisbane could only guess at which facial expressions denoted with emotions, but he felt he could be sure that this evil, flesh-eating monster was horrificly mad at him. This knowledge did nothing to assuage his trepidation about the length of his future in the hands of these creatures.

But there was his medallion. It had given the ork pause and had kept him from killing Brisbane. And even now, Brisbane thought he saw, around the eyes, a latent measure of fear in the ork’s face. What did the pentacle symbol mean to these orks? Brisbane did not know. In human society, it was the mark of a wizard, a mystical force-shaper in some eyes, a servant of Damaleous in others. It obviously meant something to these orks as well, and that something, whatever it was, had kept Brisbane alive so far.

The ork said something in his own language and the others gave some short laughs. Brisbane kept his eyes on their new leader and, as he spoke, Brisbane saw his sharp teeth were a mass of twisted and overlapping ivories. A name came unbidden to Brisbane’s mind, Snaggletooth, and in his thoughts, that became how he began to refer to the new leader of the party of orks.

Snaggletooth said something else to the others and then went over to where Angelika lay on the river bank. Brisbane’s muscles tightened against the bonds that held him as the ork picked up his sword and examined the scabbard closely. The scabbard was an ordinary one, but the emerald in the base of Angelika’s pommel told any observer that the blade inside was something special. Snaggletooth returned to stand in front of Brisbane with Angelika in his claw-like hands. Brisbane felt the insane rage begin to build up inside him again, pushing his heart up into his throat.

No, young Brisbane. They will kill you this time.

It was Angelika. Her sweet and seductive voice quenched his fire immediately. Brisbane became strangely calm in the grasps of the other orks. He felt like he could melt right through them if he had to.

But Angelika, Brisbane thought, reaching out for his sword’s consciousness. I will not let them touch you. It’s wrong. It’s…it’s…

Sacrilege. I know, Brisbane. But worry not. Their kind cannot use me. This one will not even be able to draw me from my scabbard.

Indeed, Brisbane watched as Snaggletooth tugged on the hilt of the sword, trying to free it from the metal scabbard. The ork’s muscles were straining, but Angelika would not come loose.

Angelika! Brisbane’s thoughts were crying. I cannot bear this separation from you. Make him give you back to me. Do something!

I cannot, Brisbane. I have no control over his kind. But neither do they have control over me. Be patient. I promise, our conquest of evil is not finished. Be strong and be true, and soon we will be rejoined.


Brisbane. Vengeance will be ours. They shall be vanquished.

Angelika, I need you. I…I…

I know, young Brisbane. I know. Keep me in your thoughts and I will never be far away.

Snaggletooth snapped at Brisbane in an angry tone of voice. Brisbane shrugged his shoulders. He could not understand the ork’s language. Snaggletooth punched him suddenly in the solar plexus and Brisbane doubled over in pain. The orks holding him forcefully straightened him back up.

I can’t understand you, you stupid pighead bastard!

Snaggletooth barked another order at his subordinates and Brisbane was shoved off in the direction of the ettins’ cave. They started to move towards it, Snaggletooth leading, followed by Brisbane and the four orks, one of whom kept a firm grip on the bonds that held Brisbane’s wrists together. Snaggletooth still held onto the scabbarded Angelika, carrying her in his hand while his own sword was belted at his side. He had given the ex-leader’s sword and shield to his men, but had kept the sack to himself. Brisbane could only assume it contained some gold or something of some other value. All the orks had similar sacks, but the ex-leader’s was by far the fullest.

The procession entered the cave, losing the benefit of sunlight, and were swallowed by consuming darkness. Brisbane was instantly blinded and he unconsciously slowed his pace. He was rewarded with a shove from behind. Evidently, the orks had no trouble seeing in the dark.

Something nagged at Brisbane as they made their way deeper and deeper into the cave. Something was amiss. In a moment he had it. When he had been here last, in the battle with the ettins, Roystnof had lit the cave up with one of his light spells.

ROYSTNOF! The memory of his friend and the rest of his companions came flooding in on him like a deluge. Where were they now? Still at the top of that mountain? Fighting with that strange bird-monster? How much time had passed since he had fallen off that hand? Would his friends ever be able to find him?

Tears welled up in his eyes as he realized he didn’t know the answers to any of these questions. An unwanted feeling came up in his heart, a feeling he would never see any of them again, and as soon as it appeared, the feeling nestled into his heart like a certainty. He could logically argue against it, but it would never do any good. Down deep, he would always know better.

But he had to put it aside for the moment, lest he break down in front of Snaggletooth and his goons, and Brisbane swore to himself he would never let that happen. His eyes had begun to adjust to the darkness of the cave and he could now see they had entered the large chamber where the ettins had been sleeping. He could see their huge forms amidst the boulders that cluttered the floor, tacky with their own blood. The smell of their deaths hung heavy in the air and it made Brisbane sick to his stomach.

What happened to Roystnof’s light spell? The question nagged him like a shrewish wife. There were two possibilities, he knew, one of which he clung to like a life line and the other he tried to ignore like a punished child. His hope lay in the easy answer, that Roystnof had dispelled the magical luminance after they had left the cave and Brisbane had not noticed him do it. It was entirely possible. Brisbane had not been paying much attention and Roystnof was one of the last ones out of the cave. And it was logical, Roystnof would not have wanted to leave any evidence they had been there in case the ettins had any friends around. His fear, on the other hand, was that something had happened to Roystnof. He remembered Dantrius insisting that Roystnof’s magic lantern would cease to function after the wizard’s death. Suppose Roystnof had been killed in the inevitable battle with the bird-monster after Brisbane had taken his plunge? After all, Roystnof hadn’t dispelled his magic light in the basement of the shrine where Brisbane had killed the demon.

The orks brought Brisbane to a halt in the center of the slaughtered ettins. Snaggletooth came up to Brisbane, close enough so Brisbane could see his features in the dark cave. The ork surveyed the carnage around them and then returned his gaze to Brisbane.

Does he think I did this? Brisbane thought. Brisbane had done most of it, but that didn’t mean Snaggletooth had to know. Brisbane remembered Roystnof saying ettins were somehow related to orks. Suppose these ettins had been friends of these orks? Just another reason for them to hate him. Brisbane was not sure how much protection his medallion offered, but he wasn’t too interested in finding out.

Snaggletooth began to say something but cut himself off. He shook his head in frustration and Brisbane smiled inwardly at Snaggletooth’s language barrier. He was sure the ork wanted to question him about the death of the ettins, but was unable to because he could not make himself understandable to Brisbane.

Snaggletooth’s reaction to this realization was, again, to punch Brisbane in the gut. This one hurt much more than the first one had, and Brisbane screamed into his gag. The ork said something to his goons and Brisbane was dragged off to one side of the cavern.

Brisbane reached out to Angelika, who Snaggletooth still carried in his hand. Help me, Angelika. I need you.

Her voice answered immediately. There is nothing I can do until I am once again in your hands. Be strong. That time will come.

How do you know?

I know.

A light dawned in Brisbane’s head. Angelika, do you know if Roystnof is still alive?

This I cannot say.

Brisbane and the orks were tucked away in one of the rough corners of the ettins’ cave. Snaggletooth separated himself from the others and stood, with arms outstretched, in front of the rough stone wall. A silence fell among the other orks and Brisbane’s interest immediately perked up. Something was about to happen.

Snaggletooth, his arms still outstretched, beckoning to the stone wall, said one word in his strange orkish tongue. Ursh-low. Brisbane heard it distinctly. He had no idea what it meant, but he was sure that was what Snaggletooth had said.

There was a grinding noise in the cave, like stone being scraped against stone, and before Brisbane’s dark-adjusted eyes, the section of the wall Snaggletooth was standing before began to swing open like a door.

It was a door. A secret door like the one Shortwhiskers had found at the entrance of the temple or at the end of that endless tunnel. Except this door wasn’t opened by pushing on a certain spot slow, steady, and right into the wall. This secret door was opened with a word. A magic word. Ursh-low. Open sesame.

Magic? Did Snaggletooth and the orks have their own type of magic? What else could they do? In all the rumors Brisbane had heard about orks, none of them ever said anything about them having magical powers. They were reputed to be insanely evil, maliciously cruel monsters who attacked without fear or quarter, but they were not supposed to be wizards. Brisbane wondered if he shouldn’t try to forget everything he had ever heard about orks.

The section of wall had opened all the way to reveal a pitch black tunnel leading down into the very bowels of the Crimson Mountains. Snaggletooth turned to look at Brisbane and there was a definite smile on his lips. It spread out under his pig nose like a wound and revealed nearly all of his snaggled teeth. It made him look like a demon out of some hellish nightmare.

Brisbane decided he was not going to be taken into that dark tunnel. To hells with that idea. Once that door shut behind them—with a dull, hollow thump, like the dropping of a coffin lid, Brisbane was sure—the little light they received from the cave’s entrance would be gone and Brisbane would be lost in a world of darkness with only five angry orks as his guides. Well, he was not going to let that happen. Brisbane let his legs go slack and he sat down hard on the floor of the cave.

The orks bunched up around him, grumbling at him and poking him with their stiff fingers. Brisbane tried to ignore them. He crossed his legs and bowed his head. Snaggletooth broke his way through his men and stood in front of the sitting human.

Brisbane stared at the ork’s feet, housed in worn boots and blackly present in the darkness. Go to the hells, Snaggletooth. I’m not moving. Quicker than Brisbane would have thought possible, Snaggletooth’s right foot swung up and hit Brisbane right in the face. His head rocked and he rolled over onto his back. Pain lit up the area around him and Brisbane was sure the ork had caved his face in. The other orks brought Brisbane to his feet and he offered up no resistance.

Snaggletooth put his face back into Brisbane’s and shouted something, evidently not caring that Brisbane could not understand him. Brisbane knew the punch was coming before it landed, but somehow, it still took his internal organs by surprise. A broken face and now something ruptured in his gut. This rebellion tactic certainly had its attractions.

Brisbane was pushed, wheezing for breath and bleeding from the cheek, into the dark tunnel behind the advancing form of Snaggletooth. The four other orks followed behind, one with his hands clamped firmly on the bonds that secured Brisbane’s arms behind his back.

Brisbane cried out to Angelika, searching for any kind of solace she might be able to offer.

Be strong, young Brisbane. Our time will come.

The secret stone door shut behind them, dropping the small group into the gloom of utter blackness. Brisbane was wrong. When it shut, it sounded more like a prison door than a coffin lid.