Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Other War of 1812

The Other War of 1812: The Patriot War
© 2007 James Cusick
398 pages

If the War of 1812 rings any bells for most Americans, they may associate it with the creation of the Star-Spangled Banner, the national anthem whose lyrics no one seems to know.  Those with a taste for history who look into it may regard it as the United States' unfortunate ensnarement in the Napoleonic Wars,   responding to the attacks on its trade from  both English and French quarters. The invasion of Canada hints that the Americans were not quite perfect innocents, and still more persuasive is the case of the other invasion.  Far to the south, another war with ties to the War of 1812 had already been brewing, and would continue to work out bloody chaos for several years thereafter. I refer, of course, to the Georgian invasion of Florida.

Prior to its final annexation into the American union in 1821, Florida exchanged hands several times between the Spanish and English.  It was, in 1811, a strange sort of colony. Its residents were Spanish subjects, but most of the occupants and even leadership were not Spanish themselves.  Some called themselves Anglo-Spainards, for they hailed from varying parts of the British isles and yet gave Spain their allegiance while they lived in Florida.  Many were free blacks -- some having escaped from Georgia, some manumitted under Spanish law for various reasons.  There were even Minorcans, previously brought in by the English to help rebuild Florida after so many Spanish residents left following the Seven Years War.    Spain, in 1811-1812, was in a bad way:   its king was lost to Napoleonic schemes, its legitimate regent besieged by the French at Cadiz.  Any moment all of Spain would be lost to Napoleon, and then where would little Florida be?

Georgians were asking the same question, but they knew the answer. Little Florida would cling to Great Britain's skirts; they would allow British warships to steam from Floridian ports, there to play hell on American shipping. As war loomed with the English, the thought of the English navy safe at harbor so close to the American coastline was enough to raise anyone's hackles. Spanish Florida was an enormous pain even in good years -- not only did it continue importing new slaves from Africa, but it maintained itself as a safe haven for escaped slaves from Georgia. Worse yet,  these escapees were armed after joining the Florida militia.  And then there were the Indians, who were constantly used as a threat by Spain against the Georgians whenever border disputes loomed.  Getting the Spanish out of Florida would be useful all around.

In today's America, Florida would have never stood a chance. In these early years of the Republic, however ,expansionism was still being reigned in by circumspection and the Constitution; as much as Madison might want to take Florida,   how could he declare war against Spain -- the colonies' first ally! -- and shake them down? It was neither right nor lawful, and no one would let him get away with it.  Instead, Madison encouraged a certain revolutionary war colonel named Mathews to investigate the state of things in Florida,  and find people who wanted a little regime change. If they happened to raise the flag of revolution, kick the dons out of St. Augustine, and raise the American flag, well...then, by golly, who was Madison to stand in their way?

Of course, things didn't quite work out that way. The Other War of 1812, heavy with details of diplomacy and brush combat, tells the story of how the revolution  died before it began, but was artificially resuscitated by a few hundred Georgians pretending to be Floridians with a hankering for Independence.  Because the ranking US Army officer in Georgia maintained that he could not invade Florida, only come to its defense after the local 'authorities' declared independence and requested aide,  the Patriots leading their war against the Spain had to make do on short rations. Their war was grim, 'war even unto the knife'. Part of this was desperation, part of it the misery of battle conditions. (July is not fighting weather in the sunny South.)   The Georgians also had a serious grudge with St. Augustine and Fernandina, those cities who stole their trade and bid their slaves run, and they were especially vicious when fighting the Creeks, Seminoles, and free blacks of whom they lived in fear.    Eventually, the war petered out, but  the author points to the amount of destruction a few Patriots raised as one of Spain's reasons for realizing Florida was a losing proposition.  The Americans were too close and too hungry to be held at bay long.

The Other War of 1812 is a good bit of history -- substantial reading, yet accessible.   The war itself is not a riveting affair, just swamp raids, plantation burnings, and a prolonged siege of St. Augustine. There are a couple of stirring episodes  -- a scouting party cut off for four weeks in hostile terrain, somehow holding its own despite being vastly outnumbered, for instance --  but the real star here is diplomacy. I don't mean commissioners arguing with each other, but rather the light this sheds on how complicated relations were between the Americans, Spanish, English, and native crimes.  The author provides some books for further readings, as he links this Patriot war in with several of the Creek and Seminole uprisings that would erupt in the 18-teens.  I'm now itching curiously, but there's so much ahead of Creek wars in my interest queue.

Further Reading:

  • War of 1812, John K. Mahone. According to Cusick, this text  is singular in integrating the Patriot War, the War of 1812, and the Creek Wars together. 
  • Britain and the American Frontier, James Wright
  • Struggle for the Gulf Borderlands, Frank Owsley
  • The Spanish Frontier in North America, David Weber

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Benedict Option

The Benedict Option
© 2017 Rob Dreher
269 pages

  Christendom has fallen; long live Christendom.   In The Benedict Option, Rob Dreher argues that the Christian church in the United States is at a crisis point and must now think seriously and act deliberately if it is to avoid the fate of European Christianity. The vestiges of America’s Christian past have evaporated away,  and what has replaced them?  A vague feel-good sentiment that is applied like lipstick on the pig that is self-worship.  One of Dreher’s earlier books, Crunchy Conservatives, introduced readers to the idea of a conservative ‘counterculture’ to resist the worst aspects of American consumerism.  With the Benedict Option, Dreher maintain that such a counterculture is no longer an option: it is a necessity if Christianity in America is to survive a culture now defined by corrosive materialism, violent and pornographic entertainment, and the disintegration of the family.

 Dreher begins with a visit to the cradle of western monasticism, the abbey of Nursia where St. Benedict began.  Benedict, too, lived in an age of decline – in the dusk of the western Roman empire, an age of corruption and decay. Born into privilege , he could have had a reasonably comfortable life, yet devoted himself instead to creating a monastery for the purposes of work and prayer.  Dreher uses the Benedictine rule – its  requirements for  being rooted in a place, living communally,  studying, praying, and physically laboring – to explore ways that people today are creating an authentic Christian counterculture; one which is vibrant  and self-contained, existing within but separately from the  mass culture. (Judaism is the stellar example, having sustained itself for thousands of years despite chronic marginalization and outright persecution –  and possibly because of that persecution, if Natan Sharansky’s case is typical:  his embrace of Judaism increased every time he was targeted because of it.)

 Up until the present day,  Christians in America have been able to combine their loyalties;  America was a place formed by Christian ideals,   from the Puritan townships of New England to the Catholic parishes of Louisiana. For most of its history it has been populated almost wholly by Christians, resulting in a culture where even non-Christians tended to conform to Christian norms of behavior by default.  The American devotion to individualism was thus moderated by some sense of religions conviction  The zeitgeist  has changed, however, and the prevailing religious attitude of most Americans (including its Christians) is what Dreher and others call “moralistic therapeutic deism”. Its  tenets are all mild and comfortable: God exists  and wants you to be happy, you should be nice, and if you  die without having murdered someone, you’ll probably go to heaven because God is nice, too.  It is the kind of religiosity that lends itself well to a consumer culture:  the idea of God is there when you need it, a quick prayer during distress, but doesn't intrude on one's life otherwise.   But this sort of vague belief is the useless security blanket that the anti-religious hold all religions to be. It  does not form the character, or steel it for real crises;  it does not compel people to work to create things good and beautiful, let alone prompt them to sacrifice themselves for someone else’s good.   The American polity is likewise bereft of virtue: the national government is marked by routine assassination, excessive surveillance, and casual coercion of the powerless.   If serious Christians wish to  preserve their faith, they  must realize that they are Christians first and foremost..   “Our citizenship is in heaven,” wrote Paul, and centuries later St. Augustine would repeat that in his City of God.  To be born into America is an accident of geography; to preserve oneself as a Christian in a materialistic,  selfish, and scorning society will require grace,  sheer will, and the support of other Christians.

To live inspired by the Benedictines, to preserve a culture amid collective chaos,  suggests a degree of asceticism.  A certain level of withdrawal is required from outside society. By no means does Dreher advocate Christians withdrawing into survival cells in the mountains,  but he does urge readers to reflect on the degree to which their characters and minds are being fragmented and disordered by popular television,  too-frequent use of wireless devices, etc.  It also means rethinking engagement with State politics, for beyond a few critical areas there is not much that can be done. Protecting basic liberties is possible within the cultural mainstream, sure, but to be most effective,  Christians should focus on local politics. A Benedictine works the soil he is given; he does not attempt to be a one-man agricultural lobby.

Education is crucial for renewing Christian civilization, for state schools are where children’s souls go to die.   A child raised in a morally-inclined home will, at school, be exposed to children who were raised in sewers – children who believe that violence and verbal abuse are normal, and that watching naked ladies on their cellphones is harmless fun.  Dreher encourages Christians to consider  the growing movement of classical Christian education, which grounds the cultivation of children in a tradition with deep roots.  Homeschooling is another option,  though it requires immense patience and more sacrifice on the part of the parents.

What we must realize, says Dreher, is that the Christian way must become part of every aspect of life:  the home and Christian school should be ordered like a monastery, towards God.    At home, Dreher recommends regular family prayer regimens, and suggests that single people living alone might do well to look for fellow Christians to live with --  relying on them not just as roommates but as spiritual brothers-in-arms who provide sources of accountability and advice for one another, as well as  opportunities for helping one another in charity.   Fellowship is crucial:  the essential horror of the modern post-west is that people are so atomized and separated from one another.  The iPhone, promising connectivity to others but in reality allowing people to live more and more inside their heads, is a fitting icon of the age.    Not only does  Christian fellowship help people grow in their faith and flourish emotionally, but if the State becomes overtly hostile towards its new minority, Christians will need to rely on networks to find employment and resources. The time to build those networks is now.  Benedictine Christians can create a counter polis,  creating anew civic structures that will attract the materially and spiritually destitute.

While the Benedict Option addresses itself to the Christian future, I do not believe the advice is merely applicable towards surviving and thriving in the future. Even learning a little of the classical tradition is edifying and eye-opening, whether one is reading the moral philosophy of the Stoics or contemplating the beauteous order in medieval architecture.  There is no shortage of books written today about the effects of television and constant computer usage on the brain -- I personally haven't watched television since 2009,  after I realized it was addictive, distracting, and idiotic.    Much of the problem with American politics today is that the polis is gone:  we feel its absence, we desire its order and meaning, but the national State is too large, too distant, too complicated to be the polis. This is why Dreher advocated localist politics, but if we created in his words a counter polis,  a membership within society,  we would be aiding contemporary life immeasurably.   Not only materially, of course, but socially.  Membership is one of the most fundamental cravings of the human soul.   Christianity has always been a social religion, an other-oriented religion: it exists, G.K. Chesterton maintained, for the purpose of people who are not its members.  To create a vibrant, stable, and humane society within the absurd chaos of modernity would establish sanctuaries for those outside Christendom, who feel the alienation and look for answers.   Thus, the Benedict option is not simply one of self-survival, but one which serves as a witness and a stronghold of charity.


  • Out of the Ashes, Anthony Esolen.  Similar, but not focused on spirituality to the degree of Dreher. 
  • Blue Like Jazz/Through Painted DesertsIn one of these books, the author lives in a Christian commune for a while. They may have been linked with The New Monasticism, which was an Emergent Christianity movement I read into a little back in 2009 when I was reading about simple living in the Buddhist, Gandhian, and Christian traditions.  Dreher writes about New Monasticism and its possible connection to the Benedict option here
  • Dreher's corpus of work at The American Conservative, where he's been discussing the "BenOp" with readers for at least two years now. 
  • Crunchy Cons, Rob Dreher.  One of the first 'conservative' books I ever read, back when the only conservatives I knew of were Republican warhawks.  Imagine my delight to find in Dreher a man who writes about new urbanism, public transit,  locavorism, a non-imperial foreign policy, etc!  It's fun to read this review in part because I've changed over the years, and now share Dreher's "sinister" contempt for the state  and media. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Unvanquished

The Unvanquished
© 1938 William Faulkner
254 pages

Years ago in a ninth-grade literature class,  I chose to read a book by William Faulkner for a class project on the basis that he was a southern writer. My teacher cautioned me against trying The Sound and the Fury, warning me that it was difficult -- a challenge out of  scale for a minor paper. Well, dear readers, I persisted -- for about a chapter. Then, faced with Faulkner's bewildering narrative style --,a torrent of words with few  marks of punctuation, flowing ceaslessly like the Mississippi --  I returned to my teacher with tail between my legs and asked for something else, and thus read The Old Man and the Sea for the first time. Ever since then, the memory of Faulkner has haunted me.  I associate his writing with both brain-melting difficulty and with embarrassment, and yet...still I've wanted to read him. The prevailing reason is the same:   William Faulkner is a southern writer. He is not just a southern writer, though,  he's one of The Southern Writers, always mentioned with Flannery O'Connor as though the two were manufactured as a set, like a pair of pants.

The Unvanquished is the story of a young boy (Bayard Sartoris) who comes of age amid the Civil War and reconstruction, along with his close friend Marengo ("Ringo").  Ringo begins the novel as a slave, but the narrator mentions early on that he and Bayard were so close in age that they suckled at the same breast, and both lived in  dread awe of The Colonel and Granny.  While The Colonel (John Sartoris) is off at war, fighting to keep the damyanks out of Vicksburg,  Granny is the boss.  Actually, I almost suspect she remains the boss when The Colonel is home, for this is a woman who trucks into the middle of a warzone to demand the Yankees return her stolen mules, her slaves, and her chest of silver.  Fearless, she uses fabricated requisition papers to steal and sell livestock to the invading army -- not growing rich, but using the proceeds to support her community of Jefferson, burnt-out by the war.   Shady business brings forth shadier persons, though, and soon death visits the Sartoris family. In the collection's conclusion, young Bayard -- who is now a twenty-something law student -- must confront the man who robbed him of his father  upholding the family's honor but heedful of the consequences should he make the wrong choice.

If you have never read Faulkner, The Unvanquished is a promising work  to test the waters,  It's one of his shorter pieces, and the stories' length allow an unfamiliar reader to dive into Faulkner without chance of drowning.  That style of writing, the torrent of consciousness ("stream" won't do for Faulkner), is present here, but not nearly as overwhelming as I remembered from Sound and Fury.   Although these stories are filled with death, as the State's armies lay waste to the South,  Granny's confrontations with the Yank officers always have humor about them, as the officers regard her with astonished admiration. One of them thanks God that Jefferson David never thought to draft an army of grannies and orphans, for a regiment of Sartorises would be the Union's undoing.

(Bayard and Ringo, Spanish cover)

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep
© 1939 Raymond Chandler
277 pages

A dying old man who lives in a greenhouse, sustained only by its heat and the fear of his children shaming the family,  has summoned Philip Marlowe for a job. The family is being blackmailed, and old man Sternwood wants Marlowe to find out who's doing it, what they've got on him, and to handle the actual paying-off if need be.  Turns out the blackmailer is a local cretin mixed up with other lowlifes who want him dead, and what seems like a simple job will have Marlowe stumbling into a river of blood. The phrase 'big sleep' explicitly  refers to death, the equalizer of punks and patricians alike,  What is not dead is Chandler's writing; only PG Wodehouse rivals him for sheer prosaic fun.  Having watched the movie months before didn't too much spoil the outcome here, as the stories develop somewhat differently.  (One plus: Bogart did all of the narration while I read.)     This is enormous fun as a noir thriller, in part because the narrator doesn't take anyone's games seriously. He has a job to do and  his own sense of honor to abide by  -- and no amount of coy women or thugs with guns is going to get him off the case.

Some early lines:
"I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it."

"I'm thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there's any demand for it. There isn't much in my trade."

"I don't mind if you don't like my manners. They're pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings."

"Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead."

"Tsk, tsk," I said, not moving at all. "Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains. You're the second guy I've met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail."

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Surprised by Joy

Surprised by Joy
© 1955 C.S. Lewis
252 pages

"When I first read Chesterton, I did not know what I was in for. God is, if I may say it,  quite unscrupulous."

Mention the name C.S. Lewis and the image of a prolific author comes to mind, secure in reputation as a scholar of medieval literature and author of Christian apologetics.  Surprised by Joy reveals a Lewis far removed from the pedestal of memory. A brief autobiography, it tells the story of how he came of age, losing and refinding faith as the world destroyed itself around him. Here is a Lewis outside the university, unguarded by coats of tweed; he is a man, struggling with  fear and doubts, spurred on by hope and far more entertaining than I would have ever expected.

The Lewis of expectations is here; an introverted, bookish, and supremely thoughtful boy with a rich imagination fed by a love for classic and mythic literature.  Lewis’ gift for storytelling is not limited to fiction, evidenced by the side-splitting account in which he recounts his father  -- an orator who could be intoxicated by verbosity once he’d gotten started --  subjecting five year old boys to momentous speeches full of pomp and storied prose, all for ordinary  errors like getting one’s shoes wet in the grass. Beyond the story of an early-20th century English childhood, however, this is the coming of age of a profound   man, who sees his life as driven on by a search for "Joy", which he experienced in brief stabs of ecstasy at various points in his young life. Such joy was not to be found in his childhood religion, which as as badly taught as everything else. He experienced shades of ecstasy when stumbling upon the Nordic myths, and despite his later materialism had a strong interest in the occult.  Later, he would come to see these experiences as momentary glimpses of something greater, and the book ends with his return to theism.  He doesn't make arguments to the reader, only outlines of the philosophical questions and themes he grappled with in his youth.  This can tend toward the heady, as Lewis' tipping point is the moment when he begins to understand the universe as some sort of cosmic mind, an Absolute, and another author (Chesterton) forces him to call a spade a spade. When Lewis is being philosophical about the writing can get heady -- 'thinking about thinking' always does, and Lewis' attempt to understand consciousness appears to have been a major factor in his rejection of a purely material universe. Here the difficulty is further complicated by frequent mentions of intellectual movements that Lewis was arguing with and flirting with that have since faded not only from the intellectual scene, but from memory altogether.

I've read this book several times in the last two years, partially out of affection for the author and partially to understand his experience.  The latter still eludes me in part, but epiphanies aren't a mental commodity that can be packaged up and transferred from brain to brain. However much some of his experience may elude me, there's still so much about him to appreciate: his contempt for authority, his imaginative passion and curiosity, his dogged efforts to wrest understanding from old books and new friend,  and his utter delight in simple things like country walks and stolen mornings spent with a pipe in the library.  He's one of those authors who I spot on a bookstore display  and have  a sudden burst of affection for, as though I'd spotted a friend out of the window. (Wendell Berry  has a similar effect, but Lewis has that old-fashioned  Oxford don aura about him.)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Podcast of the Week: Science Fiction, Liberty, and Dystopia

"One of the great things of it, Tom, and this is where Orwell was such a genius --  in looking how language was being used as a form of manipulation. Orwell is always interested in propaganda and makes the point that propaganda is a habit.  It's a long-run game. Propaganda isn't a matter of convincing the current generation that the propaganda is right, but repeating things so often that you're limiting the way they think at all."

On Monday, Tom Woods sat down with historian Brad Birzer (American Cicero)  to talk about early science fiction and to discuss the political themes explored by Thomas More, George Orwell, and C.S. Lewis. In general,  Woods and Birzers appraise SF as anti-authoritarian and subversive.  Birzer opened by mentioning that Catholic and Jewish authors played a large part in early science fiction in part because they were discouraged or prevented from participating in 'mainstream' culture; publishing outside the New England/WASP stronghold also allowed them to be critical voices.    The discussion doesn't go past Orwell,  which is too bad because Bob Heinlein's Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an obvious example of libertarian themes in SF.

A quote from CS Lewis' piece, "On Science Fiction":

That perhaps is why people are so ready with the charge of 'escape'. I never fully understood it till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple question, 'What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?' and gave the obvious answer: jailers. The charge of Fascism is, to be sure, mere mud-flinging. Fascists, as well as Communists, are jailers; both would assure us that the proper study of prisoners is prison. But there is perhaps this truth behind it: that those who brood much on the remote past or future, or stare long at the night sky, are less likely than others to be ardent or orthodox partisans

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

China: An Introduction

China: An Introduction
© 1984 Lucian W. Pye
400 pages

Lucien Pye was born in China and later returned there to advise the US government. China: An Introduction is written in that spirit, being a review of the making of Communist China and its attempts to find policies to modernize China from the inside out.

The volume opens with a hundred pages covering Chinese history,  with an emphasis on the  philosophical schools which contended for preeminence in the old Empire: Taoism, Confucianism, and Legalism. That drama is applicable to the more extensive coverage of the evolving Communist party in China, for  Confucianism so under-girded China that it continued to influence the expression of communism in China even after every aspect of the old civilization was set ablaze.  For instance, Chinese communism did not view itself as supremely scientific and inevitable; instead,  Mao and others believed that a cyclical model would continue, and China would ever be tugged between communism and capitalism.  The Confucian emphasis on perfectibility and self-sacrifice in pursuit of social virtue also lent themselves to early propaganda, in which people were expected to labor in hardship and poverty not for themselves, but for the good of the communist experiment in China.

 Pye devotes the bulk of the book to covering the rise of the Communist party, and its internal politics through to the end of the 1970s.  The book indicates to me that Mao was a singular figure, not simply for his role in the revolution but for his conceits in office: intriguingly, Pye writes that Mao scorned cities,  viewing them as hotbeds of capitalism. I also didn't realize how quickly the Chinese learned from Russian mistakes: as early as 1959, they reintroduced privatization in agriculture,  creating private plots that remained unmolested even amid the nightmare of the cultural revolution.

While I am not particularly interested in Communist party politics, I found the discussion of China's early philosophical debates fascinating -- especially because while Confucianism was not a religion, it permeated every level of society and shaped China in the manner that a religion would.  Pye has engendered in me an excitement for reading about Confucianism proper a little later on.