Remembering Private McAdow

I had numerous ancestors who fought in the U.S. Civil War. On my mom’s side, one of my direct ancestors was a Union spy during the war. He was captured three times. We joke sometimes that he was better at escaping from Confederate prisons than he was at being a spy. He survived the war and lived a long life.

On my dad’s side, Dr. Isaac Proctor Farquhar put medical school on hold and became Private Isaac Proctor Farquhar, like many of his brothers did. The elder Farquhar brothers who were already doctors became officers in the Union army, while the younger Farquhar brothers became infantry. All survived, came home to their families and resumed their productive medical careers.

James Washington McAdow did not. Read more

How the Republican Party is losing me

I tend to lean to the right. For as long as I understood what it meant to be conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, I called myself a conservative Republican. In college, I wrote a newspaper column for 3 1/2 years brashly titled "No Left Turns."

In last year’s primary, I voted for Ron Paul for a couple of reasons. One, a lot of things he said made sense. Two, at least he sincerely believed in the things he said that didn’t make sense. And three, he’s a doctor. When Ron Paul predictably didn’t get the nomination, I voted against John McCain and for a Democrat, Barack Obama. The main reason was health care.I come from a long line of Republicans. My great great great grandfather, Dr. Edward Andrew Farquhar, helped the Republican Party get organized in the state of Ohio prior to the Civil War. My great grandfather, Ralph Farquhar, worked for the powerful Ohio Republican Marcus Alonzo Hanna. And my dad was three things: outspoken, Republican, and a doctor. Sometimes the order varied.

In 1992, Dad was very much against Hillary Clinton’s health care plan, but he was very much in favor of some kind of health care reform. The system desperately needed it, even then. Rarely did a week go by without Dad getting an angry letter from one of his patients. The story was always the same. Patient comes to Dad seeking treatment. Dad treats patient. Patient gets better. Dad bills insurance company. Insurance company denies claim. Patient can’t afford to pay.

The only variance was the patient’s understanding of what happened. Sometimes the patient was mad at Dad. Sometimes the patient wanted Dad’s help. All too frequently, what happened was Dad just didn’t get paid. The insurance provider–be it Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurance–wasn’t going to budge. The patient legitimately couldn’t pay the bill. Dad could press, but if the patient paid, the patient would go hungry. If Dad didn’t bill, Dad wouldn’t go hungry. Dad had a soul, so Dad would do what people who have souls do and just tear up the bill.

Someone had to give a crap about these people. Unfortunately sometimes Dad was the only one.

Dad told me once that if I decided to become a doctor, he would lock me away for seven years. Being a doctor is a family tradition. Dad thought there were better things for me to do than spend my life messing with computers, but being a doctor wasn’t one of them. He wanted me to have a better life than he had.

Dad died of a heart attack in 1994, aged 51. Had the health care system allowed him to practice medicine and stayed out of his way, I’m sure he would have lived longer. Maybe he would have been still been alive when my grandmother and father in law needed him.

Fast-forward to 2006. My wife was pregnant, but having a hard time of it. Extreme nausea was keeping her almost bedridden some days. Her doctor found one and only one anti-nausea drug that would work, a treatment normally given to cancer patients. Our insurance was willing to pay for it once. When her 30-day supply was exhausted, the doctor tried every treatment that the insurance company was willing to pay for, but none of them worked. She fell into a vicious cycle of dehydration and nausea. One built on the other, and she ended up hospitalized.

The drug cost about $80 a week to just buy outright. I bought a week’s supply to keep her out of the hospital for a week while I figured out what to do next. The doctor knew I was unhappy. I asked him if it would do any good to get a lawyer and sue the insurance company. I was serious and he knew it. He said he wished someone would do that, but if it was me, the only thing I’d accomplish would be getting some face time on CNN and meanwhile we still wouldn’t have the medicine we needed.

This is the free market compassion that Rush Limbaugh spouts about. I’ve yet to figure out what’s compassionate about cutting off a woman’s medicine so she has to go into the hospital. The insurance company will pay for part of her hospitalization, but not the medicine that keeps her out of the hospital. Oh, and while she’s in the hospital, she can’t work.

Writing some letters succeeded in getting her the medicine she needed. And my employer, to its credit, changed insurance plans the next year, to something that takes better care of people.

Unfortunately, this year I found myself working for a very large company that operated as its own insurer in order to keep the profits to itself. And that company quickly decided that my wife was using too much insulin and my son was using too many vaccines. Their doctors disagreed, but they’re only doctors. What do they know about profits?

One day, after getting yet another denial claim in the mail, I ran into a former coworker in a parking lot. He asked how things were going. I told him, then asked if my old company had any job openings. A month later, I was working for my old company again, with the only health coverage I’ve ever seen that actually covers what I need it to cover. When they offered me the job, I had to think for a whole two seconds before accepting.

Most people can’t do what I did. On paper, pretty much every health insurance plan I’ve ever had pretty much looked the same. But like I said, there’s only been one that ever covered much of anything.

And pretty much any old insurance plan works for me, because I rarely use it. As long as I visit a chiropractor every six or seven weeks or so, I have no health issues. I could save a lot of money by declining coverage entirely and just paying the chiropractor out of pocket.

But my wife has to go to the doctor more often. So does my son. Me paying into the system and getting next to nothing out of it covers for them, who pay into the system and take back out a much higher percentage of what they paid in.

The only companies who aren’t jealous of health insurance companies’ profits are the oil companies. Since 2000, their profits are up more than 400 percent. But year after year, more and more people find it harder to get health coverage.

The system has a good racket going, frankly. Food companies sell poisonous food to the unwitting (or apathetic) masses. The masses get sick and have to go to the doctor more. Doctors give them pills for their problems, but the problems get worse because they keep eating poisonous food. Eventually they develop diabetes or cancer, at which point the insurance company can cut off coverage.

Everyone makes lots of money in the meantime. Except for the consumer-turned-patient, who pays out more and more every year, then eventually ends up with a chronic and painful disease.

I’m not saying it’s a conspiracy. Not at all. The free market just found something that works really well for the people in power. It’s a beautiful system–for those who benefit.

Unfortunately that same system hurts people. I live with two people it hurts. And the system killed my dad.

Sometimes the market needs a referee. That referee is called regulation. And since the Republican Party isn’t willing to regulate, I voted for a Democrat that I knew would press the issue.

Actually what I expected was for Obama and the Democrats to push some kind of socialized medicine, and Republicans to counter with something like the German system, which is all private but highly regulated. You don’t hear much about the German system, mostly because it works pretty well.

That’s what I favor.

Some people may wonder why I care, since I have good coverage now. But if you think the plan I have will last forever, you’re smoking crack. Eventually the plan will get too expensive. Or the company could get bought out, or it could lose the contract I’m on. There are any number of things that could put me right back where I was a couple of months ago.

I’d much rather fix the system. I might need it someday, but not only that, I actually have a soul, and I’m tired of seeing other people suffering.

If that makes me a moderate rather than a conservative, so be it. If it means I’m no longer a Republican, well, some things are more important than labels and party affiliations.

R.I.P.? The American Dream

Nearly 20 years ago, as I sat in a high school English class, the teacher told us all about the American Dream. And then she said there was one generation that wasn’t going to experience that dream, and she pointed at us.

As grim as things look right now, I can look around myself and see people proving Mrs. Susan Collins wrong, and that makes me happy.I guess she read somewhere that the U.S. economy had basically peaked. I vaguely remember reading something like that sometime in the late 1980s. It would have been just like my Dad to find an article like that in a magazine, rip it out, tell me to read it, and tell me not to let it happen to me.

The current prevailing theory is that as the rest of the world develops, our economy will grow as well because they’ll be better able to afford to buy our stuff. Hopefully by the time that happens, we’ll still know how to make something here.

The real threat to the American Dream right now is the sense of entitlement. When I look at the American Dream, I look at how my Dad lived when he was my age, and I have him beat hands-down. I have a house in the suburbs, and I own it outright. When Dad was 33, he lived in a slum. Well, not quite a slum. It was the former Toledo Motor Lodge, converted (badly) into apartments. The way Mom tells it, it was even worse than it sounds.

The problem is that we’ve been brainwashed not to compare our lives with where our parents were at our age. We’re supposed to have a better life than them right now. And if you’re under the age of 40 and your parents are white collar workers, that’s not a realistic expectation at all.

If my Dad were alive today, he would probably make 2-3 times what I make. Osteopathic radiologists with 30 years of experience make more money than systems administrators with 10 years of experience. What if I’d followed his footsteps and become an osteopathic radiologist like he was? He’d still make more than me, because radiologists with 30 years of experience make more money than radiologists with five years of experience. Who wouldn’t rather have the guy with 30 years’ experience reading their x-rays?

But that’s something my family has been dealing with for generations. Dr. Edward Andrew Farquhar started practicing medicine before the Civil War, and when you trace him to me, I’m one of only two generations who didn’t follow his footsteps. When it comes to the American Dream, it’s hard to compete with your father when your father was the town doctor. It isn’t all just handed to you.

But that’s a blessing in two regards. That means anyone who’s deserving of the title can be the next town doctor. That’s good for everyone, because unspeakable things happen when I have to look at something that’s bleeding a lot. If I were the town doctor, lots of people would probably bleed to death.

And any time someone says the American Dream is dead, I look at my neighborhood. It’s overrun with Bosnians. More than 50,000 Bosnian refugees ended up in St. Louis in the early 1990s.

I wish every city in the United States had 50,000 Bosnians move in, because they’re the best thing that’s happened to St. Louis in a very long time. They found jobs, worked hard, saved money, and bought run-down houses in declining neighborhoods. I can remember (barely) some of those neighborhoods, and they’re a better place now because of it. The neighborhoods not only look better now, but they’re safer.

Some of the children of those refugees are grown now, with jobs and families of their own, and increasingly they’re moving into the suburbs. In other cases, first-generation Bosnian immigrants are upgrading to houses in the suburbs.

It’s clear how they do it. Besides having a regular job, they always have something going on the side. Maybe more than one. They shop at thrift stores and garage sales, and they negotiate hard. They treat every dollar like it’s their last. And they’re always looking for an opportunity, or trying to make one.

They’ve tried to maintain their distinct culture, but what they may or may not realize is that they’re more American than their neighbors down the street who’ve been here for four generations.

I hope they’re still going at it when my son is old enough to pay attention. Because I intend take him out and find some Bosnians in action. And when I do, I’m going to point at them and tell my son to watch everything they do. Because for anyone who’s willing to do what the Bosnians do, the American Dream will always be alive.

Don\’t blame the demon

Dennis Rader, the confessed BTK serial killer, blamed the killings today on a demon inside him.

I don’t know if he was speaking literally or figuratively.

I believe in demons. I also believe in cop-outs.From the story:

“I just know it’s a dark side of me. It kind of controls me. I personally think it’s a — and I know it is not very Christian — but I actually think it’s a demon that’s within me. … At some point and time it entered me when I was very young,” said Rader, who was once president of his Lutheran church.

Rader, 60, said his problems began in grade school, with his sexual fantasies that were “just a little bit weirder” than other people’s.

“Somewhere along the line, someone had to pick something up from me somewhere that there was a problem,” he said. “They should have identified it.”

Let’s dig into this.

What a demon is. A demon is an evil spirit. It’s not a dead person; you don’t have to worry about the ghost of Hitler harrassing you. A demon by definition is a fallen angel. Unlike the Hollywood definition, angels aren’t dead humans. Angels were created before humans were, and although they can appear in human form, they are distinctively not human.

The Bible doesn’t talk a lot about demons; what we can infer from what it does say is that sometime before God created Adam, there was something of a civil war in heaven, led by Lucifer, who was the most powerful of the angels (this may have been a title he shared with the archangel Michael). Lucifer sinned, and a number of other angels–possibly as many as 1/3 of the total number–sinned with him. These are demons. Lucifer is known by a number of other names, among them Satan and the Devil.

Recognizing evil is very easy. Look at the motive. God loves you. Angels love you. They have your best interests at heart. Demons hate you. Their eternity is miserable and they want yours to be miserable too. The best way to recognize evil is to look for hate.

What a demon is not. While a demon can be a very influential force, it’s rare that a demon is a controlling force. The movie The Exorcist is a dramatized version of a true story (it happened in St. Louis) but this is the exception, not the rule.

Why are there more demons in the Bible than there seem to be today? I love this question, mostly because it took me more than 10 years to find the answer. Misdiagnosis is one possibility. In Biblical times, when you were nuts, demons were the only explanation they knew. Today we know about mental illnesses and can treat many of them.

And demons shouldn’t necessarily be the first thing that people blame. If a condition responds to medicine, it isn’t a demon. If the condition doesn’t respond to medicine, it could be a misdiagnosis. Or it could be a demon.

But another reason you don’t see as much demonic influence as Jesus did is sheer numbers. There are more than 6 billion people alive today. Roughly 6 billion people total lived from 4000 BC (the dawn of civilization) to 2000 AD. Humans probably have the demons outnumbered today. At best, the margin was much, much narrower in 30 AD.

Is demonic influence Christian? Yes. This probably surprises you. If you run down your list of the most evil men who ever lived, those men may or may not have been tormented by demons. But some may not have been. They may have been lost causes from the beginning. If you were a demon and your goal was to stir up mayhem, why would you waste your time messing with someone who’s stirring up plenty of mayhem without you?

A few years ago, I counselled someone who believed she was being tormented by demonic influences. I told her this was a good indication she was doing something right. A demon isn’t going to waste time with someone who’s evil. A demon is going to concentrate on somebody it sees as a threat.

She went on to help a lot of people once she shook that away. Now it’s easy to see what that demon was afraid of, and what it was trying to prevent.

So a demon is going to tend to look for someone with a lot of potential that it can knock out, or it’s going to look for someone it can steer to make mayhem.

Dennis Rader was a leader in his community and the president of a Lutheran church. He fits both descriptions. There is no doubt in my mind that he hears voices.

So when I’m tempted, is that the voice of a demon? Maybe. Of course, humans are pretty good at wanting to do the wrong thing anyway. If you see a $10 bill laying somewhere and you’re tempted to take it because no one would ever know, that’s probably you. If the temptation is bizarre and out of character, it’s less likely to be you.

So could a demon have entered Dennis Rader, like he says? Sure. It’s like catching a cold. You’re more susceptible to it if you sin a lot, just like you’re more susceptible to catch cold if you run outside without a coat and with wet hair in the winter. But sometimes these things happen in spite of all the precautions we take. And some people seem to never get affected even if they do all the wrong things.

So should someone have noticed his problem? Maybe. But Lutherans aren’t very comfortable talking about this stuff. It seems like Roman Catholics are more comfortable fixing it than talking about it. There’s a Christian author by the name of Neil Anderson who has done more than anyone else in recent decades to get evangelical Christians talking about this subject and doing something about it, but Anderson’s books were written after the BTK killings started.

Ultimately, it’s up to the affected individual to recognize there’s a problem and do something about it. That’s not easy when you don’t know what to look for.

Neil Anderson’s book The Bondage Breaker does a good job of explaining what to look for.

In my very limited experience, there are a couple of things to look for. First and foremost are bizarre and unshakable temptations that seem out of character. Second is the inner voice. We all have an inner voice. But if your inner voice is especially cruel to yourself, that could be an indication.

Can you get rid of these things? Yes. Neil Anderson has made a career of writing books that tell how. Each volume gets more and more specialized. The Bondage Breaker is usually sufficient enough to change someone’s life.

The prescription I was given involved specific scriptures and very specific prayer. Read Psalm 18 and 119 aloud. Psalm 18 is all about victory and deliverance; Psalm 119 is the longest Psalm and it seems to cover just about everything. Maybe it works because it’s all-encompassing, or maybe it just shows that you’re serious. Finally, if there’s another Christian present, read Matthew 18:18.

And after that, the affected person needs to renounce the thing, say Jesus’ name, and tell it to leave. And in my limited experience, this works.

Now, if the problem isn’t demonic in nature, this exercise probably won’t work. God gave us authority over demons; He did not give us authority over disease.

When my pastor’s daughters used to have nightmares, he used to renounce the nightmares and the fear in Jesus’ name. It worked.

Can a demon make a serial killer kill? Well, in theory it probably could. But we’re not puppets; we still have free will. I guess it depends on your definition of “control.” If the idea to do something dropped into his head, and then the demon tormented him until he did the deed and then relented for a while, is that control? But the demon didn’t actually commit the act.

Had the right person recognized something, could the BTK killings have been prevented? If what he is saying is true, yes. But the same thing is true for most things. One is not likely to be cured of this without wanting the help.

But if he had been Roman Catholic, or if he had been born, say, 30 or 40 years later when the subject of demons was a bit less taboo, yes, I believe someone could have helped him.

Getting started in Genealogy

I’ll admit it. I’m not ashamed of it. I’m a johnny-come-lately to the genealogy game. My computer can tell you how I’m related to more than 1,200 different people. And I just started last week.
I’ve accumulated more names than my mom did in years of research, working the old-fashioned way in the 1970s, searching libraries, museums, LDS records, and graveyards.

So how’d I do it?

Talking about Mom’s side of the family is cheating, because she can easily trace her ancestry to pre-Civil War days. Dad’s side of the family was the challenge, because his parents never talked about their roots (my grandmother actually told my mom to quit nosing around in the past and spend time with her two young kids instead–advice that I, as one of those two kids, disagree with, but it’s too late now).

Here’s what I did. I knew that my great great grandfather was named Isaac Proctor Farquhar (I didn’t know if the middle name was spelled “Proctor” or “Procter”), that he was a doctor, and that he lived in Ohio. I literally punched “Dr. Isaac Proctor Farquhar Ohio” into Google to see what came up. What came up was a family tree tracing my ancestry back to 1729. I verified it because I knew the names of my great grandfather and grandfather.

A better approach is to visit a pure genealogy search site, such as ancestry.com or the Mormons’ familysearch.org and punch in the names of any deceased relatives you can think of. The further back they are in the past, the better. The names of living relatives aren’t very useful, since people almost always strip out the names of any living people from their online records due to privacy concerns.

Once you’re reasonably certain you’ve found a relative, enter whatever you can find into your computer. Family Tree Maker is a good piece of software for tracking your roots, and it’s not terribly expensive. Several sites offer free genealogy software. I haven’t looked at any of it. There’s little risk in trying it though–virtually every genealogy program can import and export data in GEDCOM file format. A number of free Linux genealogy programs are available too–just search Freshmeat.

I need to stress entering anything you can find. Often I find incomplete genealogies online. I’ll find a record for a great great great grandfather that lists two children and a birthplace. If I’ve previously entered all available data and I know my great great great grandfather had 10 kids, including the two on that genealogy I just found, and the birthdates and birthplaces and spouses’ names all match, then I can be reasonably certain that I’ve got the right ancestor and I can see where that trail leads me. It’s more fun to track direct ancestors and see how far back into the past you can go, but you need aunts’ and uncles’ and cousins’ names to prove relations sometimes. Besides, sometimes you find a distant cousin who married someone interesting.

If you don’t find anything, talk to your living family members. Ask if they can remember any relatives’ names, birthplaces, and anything else about them. I only know about Isaac Proctor Farquhar because of some conversations I had with my dad. My sister may or may not have known about him. But I know there are relatives she knows about that I don’t. Old family photo albums and Christmas card lists are other sources of clues.

Here’s how I cracked a tough problem. My great grandfather, Ralph Collins Farquhar, married a woman named Nellie McAdow. Nellie McAdow was a dead end. Her mother’s name was Mary Lillian Miller. I didn’t even have her father’s first name. All I found was a guy named McAdow, born in Ohio. A subsequent search revealed her father’s initials were A.G. and he was born in Pharisburg. So then I had A. G. McAdow, Pharisburg, May 25, 1859-January 15, 1904. I did a Google search and found the text of an old book that casually mentioned A. G. McAdow owned a store in Pharisburg in 1883. Great, so the guy’s in the history books, and I still can’t find his first name. Somehow, somehow, Mom knew his first name was Adalaska. Adalaska!? No wonder he went by “A. G.” I searched for Adalaska McAdow. Nothing at ancestry.com. But at Familysearch.com, I found 1880 census data. I found Adalaska living with someone he listed as his stepfather, Smith May, occupation farmer. His mother’s name was Virginia, and she was born in 1838 in Ohio, and they had a daughter, Lena, who was born in 1871. That was enough information to feed a couple more searches, which gave me Virginia’s maiden name, Evans, and the name of her first husband, James W. McAdow.

He was tougher than most, and I still don’t know nearly as much about this line as some others–including Nellie’s mother, Mary Lillian Miller’s line–but I broke the dead end.

I still have no clue why two people with normal names like James and Virginia would name their son Adalaska.

The grandmother who told my mom not to pry into the past remains a tough one. Social security records confirmed her dates of birth and death, and place of death, because my memory was hazy. Mom knows her parents were German immigrant Rudolph Keitsch and Irish immigrant Bessie Bonner. A Google search revealed Elizabeth Keitsch graduated from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1932. So far I’ve found absolutely no trace of her parents. I’m hoping that census records may help–a Google search for “ancestry records search” turns up several sites that will let you search various U.S. censuses for free, but they all use ancestry.com for something or another, which is down for maintenance as I write.

But I’m reasonably confident that once I can search census records, even my stubborn half-German grandmother will finally yield some information after all these years.

You can subscribe to ancestry.com to get to information that you can’t find online for free, and I’m sure that at some point I’ll end up doing that. For now I don’t have much reason to. You might as well see what you can find out for free as well. And I honestly hope you don’t have four grandparents like Elizabeth Keitsch. I hope yours are more like Ralph Collins Farquhar Jr., who took about 30 seconds to trace back to 1729, and whose grandmother, Elizabeth Stratton, led me back to the sixth century and gave me a splitting headache that forced me to temporarily abandon the search to return to this continent and four-digit years.

May all your lines do the same.

Pretentious Pontifications: The word of the day

The word if the day is “gat.” I understand that David’s boss did not know what that means. I take that as a sign of aristocracy, for among gentlemen, only those with a love of linguistics tend to know the meaning of words utilized by rabble like my black-sheep brother David.
I trust I need no introduction. I am R. Collins Farquhar IV, David’s consanguineous twin brother. I got the good genes. David, if you are wondering, is not here tonight, so I took it upon myself to fill in for him. My best guess is that he is out trying to buy a “gat.” I understand they are available relatively inexpensively in the neighborhood surrounding the building where he works.

The word is commonly heard on the streets, where I am sure my impecunious brother would gladly spend much of his time if his boss did not keep a very tight leash on him. But I propound that the word actually has a quite fascinating history, which is very unusual for the topics David brings up. So I will take this time to share a descant with you.

The patent for the first practical machine gun was granted on the 4th of November of the year 1862 CE to Dr. Richard J. Gatling. The Gatling Gun stayed in use until 1911 CE. Although little more than a gewgaw today, the Gatling Gun was revolutionary in its time.

Some simpleton historians suggest Dr. Gatling’s goal was to obviate war by making it so devastating that men would no longer melee. Of course, that did not happen. Just ask the French, who succeeded in having themselves overrun and devastated twice in the 20th century CE and had to be bailed out by the Scots, many of whom had to come back across the Atlantic from America to do it.

Dr. Gatling was a doctor, as in medical doctor. Watching the dead return from the Civil War, he noticed that a small percentage actually died of gunshots. It was apparent to his eye that the most parlous thing about war was disease, not bullets.

In a letter dated 1877 CE, he wrote: “It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine–a gun–which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease [would] be greatly diminished.”

He was irrefragably right about exposure to disease. His theory about battle was less considerably cogent. He would have learned, had be bothered to ask me, that exposure to battle was not as easy to cure.

While the Gatling gun is no longer in use, the word “gat” came to be a slang phrase, generally meaning “handgun” or “pistol.” You still hear the word used in the streets today. Or so my sources tell me.

More Wikipedia adventures

I’ve been writing for the Wikipedia a fair bit lately. I was adapting some out-of-copyright articles about Civil War generals when the Columbia disaster happened, and I was shocked to see the Wikipedia’s information was as up to date as anyone else’s.
I’ve noticed that trend. Wikipedia authors keep up on their current events. People and events that will be forgotten in a couple of years have extensive entries. But the current events knowledge recorded there doesn’t run very deep yet; I found on the “requested articles” page a request for a biography of Newt Gingrich. I know he’s been laying low for the past five years or so, but is Newt Gingrich really a figure in history yet?

I took the Gingrich biography off a Congressional Web page (U.S. Government works are public domain) and spent half an hour fleshing it out.

Then I noticed another name I recognized on the requests page: G. Gordon Liddy. I’d seen his mug in conservative rags and I knew he did prison time in connection with Watergate and had a controversial radio program. But I didn’t know anything else about him. After an hour or so of digging, the most enlightening thing I learned about him was that he was a b-grade actor in the 1980s and early 1990s. I wrote up a sorry excuse for an entry, but a detail of his Watergate exploits, mention of his status as a radio talk show host and a list of movies and TV shows he appeared in is more useful than nothing. Even if I couldn’t hunt down minor details like his date or place of birth.

Then I closed out my Controversial Conservatives series with Whittaker Chambers, who was also on the requests page. Chambers was the accuser in the Alger Hiss trial that made Richard Nixon (in)famous. (Before Watergate made him even more (in)famous.) I remember hearing rude and nasty things about Chambers in history classes in college, but I didn’t know any specifics about the man. It’s a shame because he’s really pretty interesting. (I can tell the story a lot better here than I did at the Wikipedia. Writing really is better when it can have a little opinion in it.)

Chambers had dysfunctional parents before having dysfunctional parents was cool. He was a loser who struggled to finish high school and couldn’t hold down a job. So he went to college, where he got kicked out because he wouldn’t go to class. He became a communist. He was a good writer–possibly even a great writer–so he started writing for a couple of commie rags and eventually rose to the level of editor at both of them. Somewhere along the way someone asked him if he’d do some espionage work. He did. But Josef Stalin made him really nervous and eventually Stalin’s Hitleresque acts drove Chambers to not want to be a communist anymore. He left the party and his politics turned hard right.

FDR’s assistant Secretary of State was a friend of a friend. In the summer of 1939, Chambers crashed a party one night and spent three hours with him out on the front lawn telling him everyone he knew who’d ever had connections with the American Communist Party. The friend of a friend told FDR. FDR laughed, said it was impossible, and besides, he needed to concentrate on Hitler.

Chambers took a job at Time, captivating readers with his writing and pissing off writers with his editing. Chambers didn’t want anything he printed to be mistaken for being pro-Communist. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Chambers was Red Scare before Red Scare was cool too. Eventually Chambers became senior editor of Time Magazine and made a cushy $30,000 a year.

Then, in 1948, Dick Nixon came knocking. History tends to treat Chambers as an opportunist trying to gain fame by taking down the goliath Alger Hiss (Hiss, after all, was at the time a candidate to become Secretary-General of the United Nations). And while one could made a reasonably strong claim for opportunism in 1939 when he was a college dropout who couldn’t hold down a job, in 1948 that doesn’t really seem to be the case. Chambers was making 30 grand a year working for one of the biggest magazines in the free world, in an era before television had gotten a chance to take off, so writing for one of the biggest magazines in the free world was a bigger deal than it would be today. And 30 grand was a lot of money at the time. Some accounts say he was a reluctant witness. I know I would have been if I were him. Remember, the commie had by then had nine years to go capitalist.

But Chambers testified. And Hiss was just one of many names he dropped a dime on. But the House Un-American Activities Committee zeroed in on Hiss.

Hiss initially said he didn’t know the guy and had never even heard of him. Then Nixon arranged a meeting in person. Hiss said he knew a guy named George who used to run errands for him who kind of looked like him. After spending a little time with him, he acknowledged that maybe this Whittaker Chambers guy was the George he used to know.

Whittaker Chambers said Hiss used to be a commie and a spy and might still be. Hiss dared him to say it outside of a courtroom, where he wouldn’t be protected by immunity. Chambers went on Meet the Press and said it again. Hiss sued him for $75,000. Now back when Whittaker Chambers was finding himself, Hiss was doing things like getting a law degree from a prestigious school and working for famous people. And now he was getting pretty famous himself. Chambers was a schmuck who wrote for Time and it was the only steady job he’d ever been able to hold down. People wanted to believe Alger Hiss. Chambers made Kato Kaelin look legit. And Time was getting impatient with its loose-cannon editor.

Then Chambers produced the goods. Back when he decided not to be a communist anymore, Chambers got into mutually assured destruction before mutually assured destruction was cool. He stashed some spy stuff. Now was the time to use it. He whipped out some typewritten papers. They were copies of classified documents he said Hiss had given him to deliver. I heard Chambers couldn’t keep his story straight about whether Hiss typed them or his wife. Some Hiss apologists say Hiss didn’t know how to type. And maybe Chambers was too dumb to know that just because he knew how to type didn’t mean most men did at the time. But the documents were traced to a typewriter that had once been owned by the Hiss family. Hiss said they gave the typewriter away in the late 1930s. But he couldn’t say when.

Then Chambers took two HUAC goons out to a pumpkin patch in Maryland. Chambers located a hollowed-out pumpkin, opened it up, and produced four rolls of microfilm. If you’ve seen a picture of Richard Nixon holding a magnifying glass up to a piece of microfilm, the microfilm came from that pumpkin.

The Hiss trial ended in a hung jury. The retrial ended with Hiss being sentenced to five years in the slammer. He served 3 years and 8 months.

Richard Nixon rode high. He was a senator by 1950 and vice president by 1952, and a presidential candidate in 1960.

Chambers lost his job at Time. At one point he tried unsuccessfully to gas himself to death. He wandered around. Became a Quaker. Wrote an autobiography. Hooked up with a young William F. Buckley Jr. and worked as an editor for National Review for a while. His health left him. He wrote a couple more books. And he died in 1961 without much money, still convinced of the communist threat but also predicting what would ultimately bring it down.

Hiss was ruined. He was disbarred and maintained his innocence for the rest of his life. In 1975, he was reinstated into the Massachusetts bar. He died Nov. 15, 1996, still asserting his innocence.

Although U.S. conservatives and liberals will probably argue until the end of time whether it was Hiss or Chambers who was lying, the inescapable truth is that the trial ruined both men. Chambers had everything to lose and little to gain. While his stories sometimes changed and didn’t always mesh completely with other peoples’ recollections, when you piece a story together from multiple sources you find that’s usually the case. Perspectives differ and memories fade.

There’s a Web site at NYU that asserts Hiss’ innocence. It’s the only compelling case for Hiss’ innocence I was able to find. Most pro-Hiss writing I found read like ultra-right-wing conspiracy theory. The site at NYU does a good job, but I was severely disappointed in the lack of mention of the 1978 book Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, by Allen Weinstein. Weinstein had intended to write a pro-Hiss book but the evidence he found, a decade and a half prior to the declassification of documents in communist countries, suggested Hiss was guilty.

Like I said, it’s a compelling case, and it definitely proves that the Alger Hiss trial wasn’t a black and white issue. Was Richard Nixon out to get someone? Absolutely. Was the U.S. Government eager to make someone take a fall? No doubt. Gotta teach those commies a lesson. Was Alger Hiss a man of great accomplishments? Certainly. Was Whittaker Chambers a screw-up? Absolutely. Was Whittaker Chambers wrong about some details? Certainly. But if I was called to give details about someone I knew 10 years ago today, I’d get some stuff wrong too. We all would. Was Whittaker Chambers guilty of embellishing some of his details? Possibly. A lot of people do that.

But does it prove his innocence? No. I can make a compelling case that the sky is pink if I ignore every photograph that shows a blue sky.

Now.. Generations.

Generations. Today I relate better to 40-year-olds than I do to 19-year-olds. I have friends in their 30s who relate really well to me, and to everyone else I know who’s close to my age, but I can’t step down the same number of years that they can.
One possible explanation is intelligence and/or maturity level, but I know some 19-year-olds who are more mature than I was at that age, and I know our 18-year-old intern at work is one of the most brilliant people I’ve met. So that explanation, though it may have had some merit when I was a lot younger, doesn’t have much now.

I’ve found a possible explanation.

The theory of generations goes like this. There are four basic generation “personality types,” if you will. They’re cyclical. We hiccuped once after the Civil War and skipped one type, but that’s the only time we’ve done so in the roughly 500 years that people of European descent have lived in the Americas.

Quick disclaimer: All of the examples I’m about to cite are male. My source doesn’t include a lot of female examples. Knowing the birth dates, obviously, you can fit female examples into these.

The first type is the Civics. The book says this is the most basic type, but it’s the one I understand least. They’re very rationalist and value social harmony. The two Civic generations of recent memory were born in 1901-1924 and 1982-2003. Historical figures from Civic generations include Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. Two recent examples of Civics are Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. (This was the generation we skipped immediately after the Civil War. That makes sense–that time period wasn’t very compatible with rationalism and social harmony.)

The Adaptive generations understand the others better than any other type does. They’re compromisers, above all else. Recent adaptive generations were born in the years 1925-1942 and 1843-1859. Interestingly, the current adaptive generation, known as the Silent Generation, has yet to produce a U.S. president and looks ever less likely to do so. Historical Adaptives include Teddy Roosevelt and The Great Compromiser Henry Clay. Contemporary examples of Adaptives include Ralph Nader and Walter Mondale.

Does the Idealist generation need any further explanation? OK. Think hippies. Recent Idealist generations were born 1860-1882 and 1943-1960. Historical examples of Idealists include Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and Winston Churchill. Contemporary examples of Idealists include George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Hmm. We was robbed. Or maybe we just gave our Idealists too much power too soon this time around. Churchill was 66 when he became Prime Minister. (It also would have helped if we’d picked an Idealist who could keep it in his pants, but hey. We make these stupid mistakes so future generations don’t have to, if they’re paying attention.)

I don’t think the Reactionist type needs much explanation either. GenX (born 1961-1981) is reactionist. So was the Lost Generation (born 1883-1900) that so influenced the Roaring Twenties. Reactionist Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and aptly described his generation and mine. We’re all or nothing. We produce crooks like Al Capone, we produce traitors like Benedict Arnold, pirates like Captain Kidd. We also produce scathingly perceptive artists like Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and wildly successful tycoons like Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. We also produce great generals like Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, and can even claim the Father of our Country, George Washington, as one of our own.

Now, here’s the idea. Knowing the cycle and the general characteristics, it’s easier to watch history repeat itself. And while you can’t predict the future, you can predict future trends on this model. You can’t predict who the great leaders of a generation will be, but you can in broad, general terms describe the heroes and goats of a future generation based on the best and worst characteristics of that generation. And since generations define events as much as events define generations, it’s sometimes even possible to describe future events in broad, sweeping terms.

But I think I like it best as a tool for understanding people. I’m not going to understand today’s 14-year-olds by looking at how I was at 14. Sure, there’ll be some similarities but just as many differences. Since today’s 14-year-olds are a Civic generation, in order to understand it, I really have to go back to the next-most-recent Civic generation. In my case, I have to go to my grandparents. If you want to know what GenX is going to be like when it starts hitting the big 50, your best bet is to look at the Lost Generation (those who survived that long–which should, in itself, tell you something) at a similar age.

Based on past history, GenX will have its day, crisis will come–and GenX will prove to be very adept at being both part of the problem and part of the solution–then struggle with and eventually give way to an Eisenhower-like generation, which will either comfort you or scare you.

[added later] Well, duh… I forgot the best example of what GenX coulda shoulda woulda been (and still could be). Unfortunately, not many of us remember the story of Samantha Smith, the 10-year-old from Maine who wrote to Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov in 1982 and asked why the Soviets wanted to conquer the world.

What was remarkable about her? Mostly she was in the right place at the right time. At the peak of the Cold War, here was a child who stepped forward and asked a tough, innocent question no other generation was willing to ask. She asked her question, unafraid of whether she’d be ignored. And her question just happened to be heard.

She’d be 28 now. Who knows whether she would have faded away back into a normal life, or if she would have become a voice of the generation. Unfortunately, she died in a 1985 plane crash.

But we’ve still got time. GenX’s spokesperson doesn’t necessarily have to be Kurt Cobain.

Where did we come from?


Today’s the Fourth of July
Another June has gone by
And when they light up our town
I just think
What a waste of gunpowder and sky…
–Aimee Mann

Cynical? Who, me? Murel, my next-door cubicle neighbor, asked me a question today that made me wonder, is what this country is today worth our founding fathers risking their lives for?

That’s assuming anyone knows anything about them these days. Which leads me to the question my coworker asked.

“Dave, you’re the resident history buff. What political party did Thomas Jefferson found?”

Why, the Democratic-Republicans. I thought everyone knew that.

“And what party does that correspond to today?”

Most directly, the Democrats.

Murel asked that question because he’d just read an editorial talking about “The Evil Republican Slave-Owning Thomas Jefferson.” I rolled my eyes at that.

“Abraham Lincoln was a Republican!” Murel said.

He’s right. Though that plays into another misconception. The Civil War wasn’t about slavery. That’s what the Politically Correct crowd wants to say, but that’s not true. Fundamentally, the Civil War was about a number of things. One big, forgotten issue is that of tariffs. The industrial north wanted protective tarriffs. This made American goods cheaper than foreign goods, encouraging people to buy American. Plus, in those days, there was no income tax, so tariffs were a major source of revenue.

The rural South didn’t want tariffs. Tarriffs increased the prices they paid for goods. Plus tarriffs made it more difficult to sell cotton and tobacco abroad. In short, what was good for the North’s economy was bad for the South’s economy.

You can see the other big issue by looking at the forms of government each side chose during the Civil War. The North maintained its centralized government, while the South chose a loose confederacy. The South valued states’ rights much more than the north did.

Where does slavery fit into all this? Well, it was an issue of states’ rights. But, truth be told, only a small number of southerners actually owned slaves. Everyone today seems to think the typical Southern family had a slave as a sort of live-in butler or something, because that’s how Hollywood portrays slavery. You had to be wealthy to afford slaves, so the majority of slaveowners were plantation owners. The majority of southern farmers weren’t large plantation owners. They may or may not have been pro-slavery. The issue certainly didn’t directly affect them all that much.

And the North was hardly a haven for escaped slaves. The North had experimented with it and found it cost too much to literally own your workers. So they abandoned it. The majority of northerners probably didn’t care one way or the other. Slavery wasn’t an issue that affected them. There were militant, outspoken anti-slavery activists, and they were loud, just like today’s activists are. That’s why they’re remembered. Slavery gets more people worked up than tarriffs. There are probably a lot of people who don’t even know what a tarriff is.

So why was there a war? Simple. The North was more populous than the South, so the only way the South was going to get what they wanted was by walking out the door.

And Lincoln’s goal wasn’t to abolish slavery. Lincoln’s goal was to preserve the union at any cost, with or without slavery, and he is widely quoted as having said so.

The irony here is that Lincoln was willing to consider abolishing slavery. And he was in favor of high taxes. Sounds pretty liberal. The only resemblance to the Republicans of today is the protection of big business.

The Republican party as we know it today didn’t come into being until after the Civil War, and its history as the party of big business and lower taxes is hardly consistent. Although Teddy Roosevelt was more conservative than his cousin FDR, he was running around busting up businesses at the turn of the century.

But I’ve digressed a lot. Murel talked about the failings of some of the Founding Fathers that have come to light in recent years and cast a shadow on their credibility. We’re horrified to find they had flaws. (Though somehow it doesn’t bother us that Bill Clinton and Jack Kennedy had flaws.) I disagree. The Founding Fathers were human. They were very forward-thinking and insightful and wise, but human.

But worthy of respect. Remember why they were here. European aristocrats were old money. When you couldn’t get land, you moved. So these were men whose ancestry had come across the Atlantic and started over. Yes, some of them were spoiled brats. John Hancock and Samuel Adams come to mind. But Alexander Hamilton was the epitome of the self-made man. Benjamin Franklin’s beginnings weren’t as humble, but he arrived in Philadelphia with little more than his pocket change and his training as a printer and became a tycoon.

These were men who knew what they wanted and knew how to go get it. They knew their interests and England’s interests weren’t the same and they weren’t going to get what they wanted from England, so they headed for the door.

The country we have today doesn’t bear a whole lot of resemblance to the country they fought to create. Political correctness is the rule of the day. You can’t let the facts get in the way of what’s politically correct. Nor can you let your constitutional rights. Freedom of speech, the free press, and freedom of religion are all in danger. (And you thought I was going to say something about guns, didn’t you?)

I won’t go to the extreme of calling Independence Day a waste of gunpowder and sky, because it makes sense to celebrate what we do have. We’re still a whole lot more free, than, say, Red China.

But most of us don’t know why. And as a result, most of us really take it for granted.

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