THE VIEW FROM CHAOS MANOR
View 629 June 28 - July 4, 2010
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June 28, 2010
The last Kleagle has left the Senate. Of course the Klan that Byrd joined as a young man was not the organization that grew out of resistance to Reconstruction. The old Klan was disbanded after the Hayes-Tilden election as part of a series of political agreements that ended Reconstruction. It is difficult to impossible to find real accounts of those times. Romanticized versions of Klan history were taught in Southern public schools at late as 1945 and probably afterwards. The Second Klan, which Byrd joined as a young man, purported to be a continuation of the original Klan, but there was no continuity of membership, and the Second Klan was far more active in former Union states than in the old South.** The Klan that Byrd joined was a populist movement. The original Klan gained much of its strength from the Reconstruction laws prohibiting anyone who had held a military commission or any public office under the Confederacy from being elected to city or state public offices. Ending those prohibitions was part of the deal struck to settle the disputed Hayes-Tilden election.
Little of this is apparent in the documents easily available. I find that interesting: the Hayes-Tilden Compromise was an important topic in my eighth grade studies.
Byrd long ago abandoned the views of the Klan. In later years he was best known for bringing home the bacon to West Virginia.
I do not suppose that West Virginia will give us another miracle as Massachusetts did, but we can dream...
After considerable thought I have come to the conclusion that the only way Google could have operated was to copy everything, then let those who still have active interests in copyrights object and opt out of the Google system. The agreement negotiated by the Authors Guild with Google and the publishers is, in my judgment, a lot better than nothing -- and better, I think, than allowing all those books simply to vanish.
That is: there are a lot of orphan works out there. Books that are technically under copyright, or might be, but whose copyright owners aren't aware of their rights, and often aren't aware that the books exist. This is even more true for countless magazine articles and stories.
These were all mixed in with the genuinely public domain works. What sparked Google to action in this matter was that libraries were running out of money, and were getting rid of many of those archives items. They were put up for sale, and when no one bought them, set out in bins to be taken freely, and if no one wanted them at all, put in the recycle bin. Several libraries had already done this. Others were set to do so.
The Google action -- yes, I called it the Google Grab at one time -- halted this process while Google scanned all those works and everything else in a number of libraries across the country. By scanning everything they copied a great number of copyrighted works, including just about all of mine. Authors rightly objected, and the Authors Guild and the publishers association brought suit on behalf of the authors. After considerable negotiation a settlement was reached. Like all such settlements the lawyers involved in the suits got a better deal than any of the clients, but that always happens and this agreement isn't going to clean up that particular mess.
In essence the agreement allows authors to see which of their works have been copied without permission and to apply for a nominal payment for the insult. That's not the way it's worded, but it's a fair description. The application is a bit onerous but not impossibly so.
Google also makes those copyrighted books available to the public for a fee. The fee is shared with authors who have applied for it (and in theory with any who never heard of this and later discover what's going on). Authors who think they can make a better deal with some other publisher can opt out of this part and forbid Google from offering the work for download. They still get the nominal payment for the insult. They also have to agree to the settlement including the payments to the League and to the lawyers who brought the suit.
The settlement leaves a good bit to be desired, but many of the objections I have heard involve contrived scenarios, and situations that apply to others but not to the objector. And there is "they copied my work without permission and there's no more to be said, that was evil and they are pirates and I want nothing to do with them".
The basic problem remains: there are copyrighted works whose copyright owners are unaware of their existence. There are others whose copyright ownership is so murky that no one can figure out who owns what, and the contending parties hate each other. There are authors who don't want their works to be available any longer, and heirs who inherited copyright to books they don't want anyone to read. There are those who think the entire notion of copyright is at stake here. And there are books and articles of value to a few research workers who can't afford to get into the legal game.
I'm only partially aware of the negotiation that went on between the Guild and Google, but from what I've heard it was done in good faith, and the agreement reached is about as good as most of us will ever get. Whether anyone other than the lawyers will ever get a dime of the money involved is another matter.
I've come to the conclusion that the agreement is as good as we will ever get, and it's time to settle the matter. Google, Amazon, and others are experimenting with alternatives to traditional publishing. Traditional publishers are changing their tactics. The entire publishing business is sort of up in the air, and in my judgment it's time to put this out of the way and get on with the computer revolution.
When I wrote about the coming revolution in publishing in my Galaxy Science Fiction column in the 1970's (reprinted in A Step Farther Out)*** I had only a vague notion of how all this would work, and the view I presented was fairly simple compared to the reality; but I got one thing right. The relationship between author and publisher was going to change. It's doing that now.
And precisely what is Google in that equation? Google, Amazon, iTunes, Microsoft Azure, all complex systems with different ways of seeing things and different ways of operating, and no one -- including them -- has any real idea of their final roles in the information age.
= = =
** The Second Klan had many representatives in the Indiana and Michigan state legislatures. In the Old South the Second Klan was considered a populist organization and was looked on with some disdain by the remnants of the Southern aristocracy.
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|This week:||Tuesday, June
Congress is constitutionally the Grand Inquest of the Nation
The Kagan hearings continue. She won't be borked, of course, and there won't be any serious discussion of her views and shortcomings. Senator Boxer finds it refreshing that Kagan has no judicial experience. From her publications and the few available memos she is an adherent of the notion of sociological jurisprudence, and her selection of Frankfurter as one to follow confirms this.
Frankfurter was a New Deal progressive, which meant in those times that he was an advocate of Judicial Restraint, since much of the New Deal was challenged in the courts as unconstitutional. In addition, the US Courts were often asked to strike down state laws passed by progressive state legislatures. As Kenneth Cole, my law professor and mentor once said in a discussion of some of those cases, "Surely you have heard of socialism? Could this be about the power of a state to establish socialism?"
All that is long by the boards now. Progressives are no longer so concerned with judicial restraint.
In Frankfurter's day it was thought that the President had the power and right to appoint whom he would to the Courts, and the opposition was constrained to questions of law and propriety and public record. Frankfurter was in fact the first nominee to appear in person at his confirmation hearing. His views of judicial restraint included his opposition to Baker vs. Carr, in which the Court opened the way to the abolition of State Senates and the liberalization of many states.
Frankfurter's views are complex, and although he was Roosevelt's New Deal justice, much of his record would be thought quite conservative today. We can hope that Kagan, whose confirmation is pretty well assured, meant it when she one cited Frankfurter as a judicial role model. We could do a lot worse than Frankfurter. (And, alas, we probably will.)
The hearings on Petraeus begin shortly, but one shouldn't expect much from them. It would be useful to get a definition of 'victory' in that war, but I don't see how that's possible. The US wants out. The President wants out. The Legions want out. The Congress wants out. Everyone wants out, but the very fact that we want out makes it impossible to win in any meaningful sense, because every villager in Kandahar understands that when the US leaves, anyone who collaborated with the US or with the Mayor of Kabul will be killed, probably along with his family; and memories are long.
The Taliban doesn't need large forces: just enough to concentrate sufficient force to win in a local area against whatever residual security force remains after US withdrawal. T make it worse: if the US strengthens the Afghanistan national army, AKA the Federales AKA the comitatus of the Mayor of Kabul, it weakens the local militia and tribal forces. Many tribesmen see the Taliban as enemies -- but that does not make them friends of central government and the power of Kabul. As I have said often, the one thing that seems to have united Afghanistan over the past thousands of years is the sight of non-Afghani troops on their soil; but that union doesn't last long after the Greek, or Persians, or forces of the Mogul, or British, or Russian troops have withdrawn. I have no solution to this. I can't imagine what Petraeus will come up with.
Yes: the US could hire a Foreign Legion to be stationed in Afghanistan. It probably wouldn't have that name, but would be an army of auxiliaries, most not US citizens, who would not expect ever to leave the area, and whose loyalty was to the US, not to Kabul. You may imagine how popular that would be with Karzai and his colleagues. You may also try to imagine how difficult it would be to create such a force and keep it from succumbing to the endemic corruption of the place Now imagine the political difficulties when the auxiliaries argue that they ought to be given US citizenship and allowed to come "home" at the end of their faithful service. What practices they might bring "home" with them can also be imagined.
I wish General Petraeus well.
What we didn't know about Plato -- hidden meanings? The Platonic Code? See mail.
The article is lengthy with numbers. There are also interesting comments at the end.
Is this sowing the wind, or merely Childhood's End as Clarke predicted? Of course he put aliens in his story; but the conditions, absolute paternity testing and reasonably efficient treatment of STD's, seem to have produced the social mores he postulated.
What kind of culture will result from all this? Of course we no longer use terms like decadence, or posit any harmful effects from what was once called immorality. When I was young there were girls you could sleep with and girls you could marry. They were not the same girls, and in fact the first variety were more easily found in bull sessions than in the flesh. But that was long ago.
Is this, long term, a solution to the problem of where to find modern Janissaries?
"We who preach and write books ... write while we make progress. We learn something new every day. We dictate at the same time as we explore. We speak as we are still knocking for understanding". Augustine of Hippo
Many years ago I wrote my PhD dissertation on the unreality of the "left-right" political spectrum and its lack of utility in serious political discourse. Instead I offered the "Pournelle Axis". I explained all that in an article written for one or another of my anthologies, and sharpened with the help of Jim Baen's editorial skills. The result was a column which Jim liked enough to publish in several places along with his comments. You can find it here. The political spectrum has changed in some ways since I wrote that.
June 30, 2010
The hearings continue. Kagan's answers to the questions on the limits of government power perplex many commentators, and enrage a few. None of this surprises me. The sociological jurisprudence school has always held that defense of the Constitution is as much the business of the legislature as of the Supreme Court. Of course Frankfurter and his mentors and colleagues did make distinctions between the powers of state legislatures and the Congress, but the general view was that it was not the business of the court to determine whether or not laws made sense, or were good laws; that was the business of the legislature.
A court that substitutes its wisdom for that of the legislature is acting improperly. Only when a government clearly exceeds its given powers may a court intervene -- and that latter is not easily determined.
This intellectual debate made a great deal more sense in the says of the New Deal than it does now.
Might a legislature properly pass laws restricting what people eat? But of course we already have that. Might a legislature properly conclude that selling trans fats is as great a crime as it would be to sell heroin? If a legislature can forbid marijuana, why can't it forbid tobacco? If you can't sell carbon tetrachloride bombs as fire extinguishers (when I was a lad, there were Popular Mechanics advertisements inducing young people to make their fortunes selling carbon tet bombs door to door) why could not a legislature forbid you to sell butter?
But of course we are here discussing the powers of the states. I continue to ask this question: if it required the 18th Article of Amendment to the Constitution to allow the Federal Government the power to forbid the possession and sale of alcohol -- prior to the 18th the Court threw out the Volstead Act -- and the 18th was then repealed, under which provision of the Constitution does the Congress have the power to forbid the possession and sale of marijuana? Heroin? Cocaine? Forbid their interstate shipment, yes, perhaps, but forbid a California farmer from growing hemp for sale within California? The states have such powers, but does Congress?
I suspect that Kagan would not make such a nice distinction, but I have no way of knowing. Will the joining of a sociological jurisprudence law professor to a wise Latina make for a better Court? Or even add to its diversity?
Petraeus confirmed unanimously. We anxiously await the next step.
In my judgment, victory in Afghanistan means that it will no longer be a safe haven for the enemies of the United States; it will not be a place of refuge in which terrorists may plot and from which they may operate and launch attacks. That, surely, will be enough.
That is likely to be achievable. It does not require the submission of the provinces of Afghanistan to Kabul. It does not require that the US build up a large Afghan national army capable of suppressing the tribesmen. It does require that the tribesmen be able to call for, if not effective assistance against attack from the Taliban, then at the very least swift and more importantly certain vengeance. Attack our friends and Delta Force will find you and kill you. Depend upon it.
I don't know if that is achievable in practical terms, but it is doesn't seem impossible.
Query: Has something awful happened to Google or is it just my machine? I can get somewhere with I'm feeling lucky, but hitting search does NOTHING at all. Bing works. Has anyone else had this difficulty?
Nook now $149 for Wi-Fi. The price war on readers continues...
I have a 3G iPad but I have not signed up for the AT&T account; I have found Wi-Fi is Good Enough. I suspect that would be the case with Nook.
Google problem: it's not Google. For some reason, the Firefox app Go To Google, which I rely on -- it opens a new Google window -- is taking me to Google Beta, which isn't working properly. I can use Go To Google to get the Google Beta window, type in Google, then use "I'm feeling lucky" which will take me to the real Google which then works. Meanwhile Microsoft inserted a Firefox update that takes me from Google to Bing; I have to disable that Add On or I'll be in Bing every time. I do not appreciate Microsoft doing that, even though I have in the past had some reasons to use Bing rather than Google.
The search engine wars are getting vicious. Reminds me of the Browser Wars in the early days.
I do wish Go To Google was working properly. It's very convenient to have it open a new window with Google ready to use. Hah. I see that Go To Google takes me to https://www.google.com and that is marked Google Beta. I don't recall that Go To Google did that before; I thought it just went to Google.
Obviously none of this is crucial, but it is wasting time. Yesterday I had to shut down the extensions that sent me to Bing when I thought I was doing Google. Today Go To Google isn't working properly. What next?
July 1, 2010
An eventful day. Obama has declared is intention to use the Democrat temporary majority to ram through some kind of "comprehensive immigration reform" before November (or during the session after the election and before the new Congress is sworn in). From all indications, this will be a new amnesty program, probably with accelerated citizenship provisions. Meanwhile cap and trade are still with us, as are other parts of the Obama Hope and Change and Yes, we can! programs.
Rush Limbaugh is concerned that Kagan has said in the hearings that she is no fan of natural rights as Constitutional principles, nor of the "incorporation" of the Declaration of Independence into the Constitution. This, Limbaugh says, pretty well disqualifies her from being an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
If so, many of the Justices both past and present are disqualified. Natural Law is one school of jurisprudence, and it has a long and very respectable history, from Aristotle through Cicero; but it is not the basis of the Constitution, nor did the Convention of 1787 adopt the Declaration of Independence into the Constitution.
The Constitution says explicitly that "We the people" ordain and establish the Constitution, and stipulates that all public officials -- Federal and State -- take an oath of office to the Constitution. It is, in other words, a contract. It pays homage to the Declaration by pretty well establishing that the powers of government come from the consent of the governed, but it also makes it clear what procedures define that consent. Nowhere in the Constitution is there any reference to natural rights or natural law.
How could there be in a document that legalized slavery and counted slaves as 3/5 of a person for the purpose of representation, but at the same time established that the states would determine the methods by which people are represented. This was a necessary compromise, as was the Connecticut Compromise that established two houses of Congress, one of which guaranteed that states would have the same representation regardless of their population. Again a necessary compromise: the small states were not about to relinquish all their powers and rights to the tender mercies of Virginia and New York. Neither of those compromise provisions came from natural law.
There has never been universal agreement on what are the natural rights of humans. Slavery has been justified by natural law jurisdiction. So has militant abolition. Natural right was invoked to end slavery in England, but in the United States after repeated compromises were rejected by the Court, slavery was ended by conquest and forced acquiescence in amendments to the supreme law of the land. The Civil War Amendments changed forever the relation of the Federal Government to the States.
Kagan has always been known as a follower of the school of sociological jurisprudence, and specifically has invoked Frankfurter in some of her reasoning. It should not at all astonish us that she was honest enough to say that she is no great fan of natural rights. Neither were Holmes and Frankfurter, both of whom operated in a far different climate in which there was far more agreement on what the 'natural rights' of mankind were. In those days most intellectuals were influenced and informed by the Western Christian tradition, often as modified by Unitarians like Emerson, but pretty well drawing on Western traditions.
Today we have a variety of traditions to draw from. We have historicism, folk traditions, wicca, Muslim law, various Eastern traditions, scientism, militant atheism, and many of the 'rights' each demands contradict privileges and immunities implied by one or another of the others -- and privileges and immunities of Citizens of the United States, for that matter.
I don't mean by this that the natural law tradition isn't important, nor that I am an enthusiast for Kagan; but I do point out that she's not unique in rejecting natural right jurisprudence as a principle to be followed by Supreme Court.
The Constitution is a contract. What conservatives want from the courts is strict interpretation of that contract. I would be far more interested in those hearings had someone asked questions with that view in mind, but if they did, I find little. I am concerned that she does not seem to find any limits on Federal power whatever, but I didn't hear all of the questions and perhaps I missed something.
The Constitution grants specific and limited powers to the Federal Government. The Ninth Amendment reserves certain unspecified right to the States and the People; what those are was never agreed, and was deliberately left vague. The notion was that if the Feds didn't have a specified power, then either it was reserved to the states or no one had it.
I don't mean that Kagan's nomination and pretty well assured confirmation is a cause for joy, nor am I a fan of the sociological jurisprudence school. There are many criticisms one can make of that school of jurisprudence, and I have made many of them in the past (including in many papers I wrote during my graduate studies in Constitutional Law). I do mean to say that Rush's outrage at Kagan's statement that she is no fan of natural law or the incorporation of the Declaration into the Constitution is hardly new.
We are under time pressure today, so I have to cut this short. It deserves more discussion.
I recently found this in my images files. I have no recollection of where it came from but it is beautiful. Use the space bar to advance pictures. (I repeat this for those who may have missed it.)
Whether that's a good buy is another story. I find I use my iPad rather than the Kindle for most purposes, but I do read with the Kindle in some places and for some books. It is smaller, it will fit into a coat pocket, and the wireless purchase network works almost everywhere. It depends on your budget and your requirements.
What excites me here is that I am now certain that there will be black and white readers for under $100 by this time next year, and the price of color readers will fall dramatically as competitors to Apple come out with their version of the iPad. There will also be high end "true tablet" pocket computers.
This has to be a good trend for authors. More another time.
Home safely after driving up from San Diego. Unplanned return early. Sable was glad to see us, although she's always happy to have Joe come stay with her; she can talk him into more walks.
July 2, 2010
The economic news is bad: a large number of jobs were eliminated, so there are fewer jobs. The "good news" is that unemployment is down, but that, it turns out, is due to 600,000 people giving up: they no longer seek employment, and therefore are not counted as unemployed, and thus the unemployment rate is down below 10%.
This after huge stimulus spending and rocketing deficits. The Speaker of the House has said that unemployment compensation is our most important stimulus program.
In the New Deal many "stimulus" funds were actually spent on projects that produced something. We all had jokes about the WPA and leaning on shovels, but there were people holding the shovels. Roads and trails were built. Railroads were repaired. The TVA was controversial in the extreme but it did produce dams and power plants, and the resulting energy was extremely useful when recovery began. There was the writers project that produced volumes of state and local history -- some of that very useful. Some parks were built and facilities were constructed.
The Great Depression continued despite the stimulus. The best picture of the New Deal era is given by Amity Schlaes in The Forgotten Man, available in hardbound, paper, and Kindle edition. It is readable, and while Miss Schlaes doesn't pretend to be politically neutral, she works hard at being fair. If you want to understand the period of The Great Depression and what measures the government used in attempting to get out of it, The Forgotten Man is the right book. If you want an account from someone more friendly to the New Deal (and less analytical, more concerned with intent than consequences) Frederick Lewis Allen's Since Yesterday will supplement it nicely. Allen's Only Yesterday, an informal history of the 20's, is essential for understanding that period in world history, is a better book, but Since Yesterday gives much of the flavor of the times.
So far as I can determine, the most effective government programs for building economies were tax cuts: the Kennedy Tax Cut set us on the way for a period of sustained economic growth. I can recall my superior at Aerospace, Dr. Durand, amused by my Goldwater Republicanism in 1964, being exuberant about the success of the Kennedy Democrats. With some justice: the plan worked. Of course that set the stage for the Great Society -- we had all that money, use it to build The Great Society -- but that's another story.
That, of course, is not where we are headed. The deficits are huge, and the President is now setting things up to accuse the Republican opposition to tax increases for their continued growth. There was a long period in which Democrats spent money and Republican deficit hawks became their tax collectors. One wonders if that will happen again? What the Democrats are after is value added tax as in Europe, so that the government disposes of a larger and larger percentage of national income. That seems to have worked well in Greece...
The Southern Border is more secure today than at any time in the past 20
years. So said the President yesterday. Yet along the Arizona border are
regions where the US government warns American citizens they are not safe
and should avoid the area. And as if on cue
The remedy, the President says, is amnesty although he has other names for it; and the reason our immigration policy is broken is Republican opposition. The Democratic majorities were not quite large enough. The Republicans need to reach across the aisle and cooperate on comprehensive immigration reform, whatever that is, and since the borders are already safe and secure -- so said the President -- this should all be easy.
Meanwhile out in the United States, about 70% want border fences. One would have thought that building a securely fenced border would be a good stimulus project: it employs lots of people, it's expensive, and it's something we all want. It doesn't seem to have been thought of.
We sow the wind.
Very much worth your attention:
For more on Natural Right, see mail.
July 3, 2010
We have paid public officials with tax money to paint out an American flag mural just before the Fourth of July, because it was on state property without a permit. Caltrans officials quickly pointed out that this wasn't intentional disrespect, it's just that murals aren't allowed on state property without a permit, and this was just discovered, and of course once it was discovered they had to act. Aren't you glad we're getting the government we are paying for? Do you think that in these economic times we might do with fewer public officials whose job it is to enforce this regulation?
They are certainly efficient: the mural was painted nine years ago, after the 9/11 attack. One wonders what these crackerjack officials have been doing for nine years. It must have been terribly important. But now they have fixed this awful problem of the display of the American Flag on state property, and got it painted over -- I don't know how much that cost -- before the Fourth of July. Perhaps, in these economic times, there might be other things to be done with public money than paying officials to paint out the flag?
I don't know how much Allyn Amsk costs the taxpayers per year (counting office, assistants, telephone, web access, tax collectors to extract his salary from those who continue to be employed in California, pension and health plans) but I suspect it's well over $50,000 and maybe multiples of that. Perhaps those who paid the taxes that pays workers like Amsk could think of better investments to make with their money? California apparently has a lot of public servants performing jobs that we could set aside for a few years? We might even get used to not having those services.
As I get more data I find the economic news is worse than I thought. I keep hoping that I'm wrong. Meanwhile we all have to keep working to support our public servants and their pensions.
I'll be doing a TWIT session later this afternoon. Meanwhile I'm listening to Leo Laporte's weekend radio show reminding us about The Force, a major Star Wars web site. They're discussing live video streaming from the upcoming official Lucasfilm Star Wars Convention in Orlando this August. I began to calculate the number of bits that would be needed and scared myself before I realized this was 2010 and that kind of bandwidth is common.
At least it's common everywhere except for about half of Chaos Manor. Back when my cell phone service was Cingular I could use my cell phone anywhere in the house, but just after AT&T bought out Cingular I discovered that we had no coverage in about half the house, and it's not always reliable even upstairs. Digital is digital -- it either works or it doesn't -- and a lot of the time it doesn't work. They keep telling me that AT&T will fix this. Real Soon Now.
Meanwhile, Skype with Wi-Fi works fairly well.
Just spent a couple of hours doing TWIT. Should be up shortly.
"You're holding it wrong." TWIT http://twit.tv/255 is up. A good session.
July 4 2010
Happy Birthday, America
Thanks to Ed Hume for reminding me of this. For those who don't know, Isaac had a beautiful professional quality tenor voice, and he loved to perform. That often took the form of limericks, but sometimes Isaac could be more serious:
Our National Anthem.
By Isaac Asimov
Introductory Note. Unless you're already well acquainted with our "national anthem," this interesting piece by the late Isaac Asimov will be an eye-opener. It was for me. It's especially appropriate at a time when there is much talk of tossing out this difficult-to-sing and difficult-to-comprehend old song in favor of something that better suits Ray Charles' voice. You'll understand the song much better after you read Mr. Asimov's explanation.--Hardly Waite, Gazette Senior Editor.
I have a weakness--I am crazy, absolutely nuts, about our national anthem.
The words are difficult and the tune is almost impossible, but frequently when I'm taking a shower I sing it with as much power and emotion as I can. It shakes me up every time.
I was once asked to speak at a luncheon. Taking my life in my hands, I announced I was going to sing our national anthem--all four stanzas.
This was greeted with loud groans. One man closed the door to the kitchen, where the noise of dishes and cutlery was loud and distracting. "Thanks, Herb," I said.
"That's all right," he said. "It was at the request of the kitchen staff."
I explained the background of the anthem and then sang all four stanzas.
Let me tell you, those people had never heard it before--or had never really listened. I got a standing ovation. But it was not me; it was the anthem.
More recently, while conducting a seminar, I told my students the story of the anthem and sang all four stanzas. Again there was a wild ovation and prolonged applause. And again, it was the anthem and not me.
So now let me tell you how it came to be written.
In 1812, the United States went to war with Great Britain, primarily over freedom of the seas. We were in the right. For two years, we held off the British, even though we were still a rather weak country. Great Britain was in a life and death struggle with Napoleon. In fact, just as the United States declared war, Napoleon marched off to invade Russia. If he won, as everyone expected, he would control Europe, and Great Britain would be isolated. It was no time for her to be involved in an American war.
At first, our seamen proved better than the British. After we won a battle on Lake Erie in 1813, the American commander, Oliver Hazard Perry, sent the message "We have met the enemy and they are ours." However, the weight of the British navy beat down our ships eventually. New England, hard-hit by a tightening blockade, threatened secession.
Meanwhile, Napoleon was beaten in Russia and in 1814 was forced to abdicate. Great Britain now turned its attention to the United States, launching a three-pronged attack. The northern prong was to come down Lake Champlain toward New York and seize parts of New England. The southern prong was to go up the Mississippi, take New Orleans and paralyze the west. The central prong was to head for the mid-Atlantic states and then attack Baltimore, the greatest port south of New York. If Baltimore was taken, the nation, which still hugged the Atlantic coast, could be split in two. The fate of the United States, then, rested to a large extent on the success or failure of the central prong.
The British reached the American coast, and on August 24, 1814, took Washington, D. C. Then they moved up the Chesapeake Bay toward Baltimore. On September 12, they arrived and found 1000 men in Fort McHenry, whose guns controlled the harbor. If the British wished to take Baltimore, they would have to take the fort.
On one of the British ships was an aged physician, William Beanes, who had been arrested in Maryland and brought along as a prisoner. Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and friend of the physician, had come to the ship to negotiate his release. The British captain was willing, but the two Americans would have to wait. It was now the night of September 13, and the bombardment of Fort McHenry was about to start.
As twilight deepened, Key and Beanes saw the American flag flying over Fort McHenry. Through the night, they heard bombs bursting and saw the red glare of rockets. They knew the fort was resisting and the American flag was still flying. But toward morning the bombardment ceased, and a dread silence fell. Either Fort McHenry had surrendered and the British flag flew above it, or the bombardment had failed and the American flag still flew.
As dawn began to brighten the eastern sky, Key and Beanes stared out at the fort, trying to see which flag flew over it. He and the physician must have asked each other over and over, "Can you see the flag?"
After it was all finished, Key wrote a four stanza poem telling the events of the night. Called "The Defence of Fort M'Henry," it was published in newspapers and swept the nation. Someone noted that the words fit an old English tune called "To Anacreon in Heaven" --a difficult melody with an uncomfortably large vocal range. For obvious reasons, Key's work became known as "The Star Spangled Banner," and in 1931 Congress declared it the official anthem of the United States.
Now that you know the story, here are the words. Presumably, the old doctor is speaking. This is what he asks Key
Oh! say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there.
Oh! say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
"Ramparts," in case you don't know, are the protective walls or other elevations that surround a fort. The first stanza asks a question. The second gives an answer
On the shore, dimly seen thro' the mist of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep.
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream
'Tis the star-spangled banner. Oh! long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
"The towering steep" is again, the ramparts. The bombardment has failed, and the British can do nothing more but sail away, their mission a failure.
In the third stanza, I feel Key allows himself to gloat over the American triumph. In the aftermath of the bombardment, Key probably was in no mood to act otherwise.
During World War II, when the British were our staunchest allies, this third stanza was not sung. However, I know it, so here it is
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footstep's pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
The fourth stanza, a pious hope for the future, should be sung more slowly than the other three and with even deeper feeling.
Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation,
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n - rescued land
Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto--"In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
I hope you will look at the national anthem with new eyes. Listen to it, the next time you have a chance, with new ears.
And don't let them ever take it away.
--Isaac Asimov, March 1991
The Fourth Verse is especially dear to the cadets and midshipmen at our service academies.
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