Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Pig War

It seems there is fighting and discontent all over the world: Ukraine, Venezuela, Syria, and the Sociology Department.  While the fighting seems far away and among people we may not care about (this certainly applies to the Sociology Department) we need to be careful: it is amazing how often small incidents threaten to boil over into actual wars.  Take for example, the Pig War.

The United States and Great Britain committed thousands of men and great warships to an almost-but-not-quite war that had international repercussions.  Luckily, the conflict ended with only one casualty.

The story begins in the northwest territory of the United States.  England and the US had squabbled for decades on exactly where to draw the boundary between Washington Territory and Canada.  After intense negotiations, a treaty was signed in 1846 that said the boundary should run down the middle of the channel separating Vancouver Island from the mainland.  Unfortunately, there were two channels, Haro Strait and Rosario Strait.

Depending on which strait was believed to be the main channel, San Juan Island could go to either one country or the other.  San Juan is about 8 miles wide and 24 miles long.  Though it was a beautiful island, its real value lay in its strategic location: whoever owned the island, would control the important waterway.

The United States claimed that since only the Haro Strait was navigable, it was the true boundary.  The British however, could claim prior possession--the Hudson Bay Company had maintained a farm on the island since the 1840s.  The isolated farm had several thousand sheep and a dozen or so people.

This was probably a peaceful island—frequent rains meant lots of grass, and with no predators on the island, the inhabitants probably didnt have to spend too much time herding the sheep.  It was a peaceful, idyllic world.

Until, that is, the Americans arrived in 1859.  Eighteen Americans had come up empty-handed in the gold fields and had decided to homestead on the “free” land of San Juan Island. The upshot was that within weeks, they had transformed the peaceful island into a battlefield.

On June 15, 1859, Lyman Cutlar (an American), discovered a large black pig destroying his garden and eating his potatoes.  Cutlar, of course, shot the pig. He tried to do the right thing, offering to pay the owner, Charles Griffin (a Canadian), $10 for the porker.  However, the owner was a hot-headed Irishman who demanded the outrageous price of $100.

“It was eating my potatoes!” cried Cutlar.

“It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig.” replied Griffin.

Cutlar refused to pay, and Griffin asked the British authorities to arrest Cutlar, who immediately screamed for protection from the US Army.

This happened to coincide with the arrival in Oregon of General William Selby Harney.  Harney was known to be profane, brave, and independent—not at all the qualities of a diplomat.  Harney quickly ordered Captain George Pickett (Yes--the same man who would lead the disastrous Confederate charge at the battle of Gettysburg!) to set up a defensive position on the island.  Pickett took 66 soldiers and three small artillery pieces to the island.

The sudden militarization of what had been an island principally occupied by sheep and pigs, upset the British who sent three warships to the island.  Outnumbered, Pickett asked for reinforcements, and General Harney increased the garrison to 461 men and 14 cannon.  The British responded with two more warships, bringing their force up to 167 cannon and slightly more than 2000 troops.

Meanwhile, President James Buchannan was relaxing in the White House, reading an English newspaper, when he suddenly learned that the two Anglo countries were about to have a war over a sheep-laden island that he had never heard of.   The president ordered the highest ranking general in the army, 73-year-old Winfield Scott, to go to San Juan Island and defuse the situation.

Poor Scott was in ill-health, and the trip was hard on him.  After a month at sea, he arrived in San Juan to find that both Pickett and Harney were quite proud of how they had handled the situation.  Scott--evidently the only adult on the island--managed to convince both local military commanders to jointly (and hopefully, peacefully) occupy the island until a diplomatic solution could be reached.  The British built a small fort on the north end of the island, while the Americans occupied the south end.

For the next 12 years, the two almost-enemies lived in harmony, visiting each others camps frequently to celebrate holidays or hold athletic contests.  According to one visitor, the only threat to the peace was the unusually large amount of alcohol on the island.

Eventually, the two countries submitted their claims to Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany for binding arbitration.  After a year of contemplation, the Kaiser sided with the American claim.  The British departed in November, 1872, followed 18 months later by the US Army.  Today, the island is maintained by the US Park Service, who respectfully still raise and lower the British flag on “their” end of the island every day.

The only casualty?  The pig, of course.

There is one small part of the story still left untold: One of the young officers stationed on the island during the hostilities was Henry Martyn Robert.  This young engineer designed the fortifications on the island, and was undoubtedly disturbed at the inability of the two angry groups to politely discuss this problem and reach an amicable settlement.  In 1876, he published a book titled Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies.  Today, it is more commonly called Roberts Rules of Order.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Springtime At Enema U

Ahh!  It is early springtime here in Southern New Mexico.  Actually, today is Valentines Day.  You can tell because here at Enema U, large corporations have set up tables in the Studentless Center in order to hand out condoms and sample packages of personal lubricants.  There is actually a sign that reads, “If You Are Gonna Love, Wear A Glove!”

Forty-something years ago, and at a university far, far away, I believe I bought The Doc, my wife, a hideous chrysanthemum liberally sprinkled with glitter.  That gift was probably more romantic, but certainly less practical.

It is hard to believe that the semester is already nearing the halfway point.  You can slowly see the rising levels of panic in the eyes of students as they suddenly realize that they no longer remember why they choose “Waste Disposal Systems in Nigeria” as the topic of their research projects.  The panic deepens when they discover that our library possesses only two books that even mention Nigeria (neither mentions waste disposal) and that both have already been colored by the football team.

And then there are the pale, wide-eyed faces of the seniors who realize they are just a few short weeks away from the prospect of semi-permanent unemployment.  You can almost see these students thinking, "Why did I major in the History of Reality Television?"  (The answer of course is because the math requirement was a single course: "Hooray For Numbers".).

And this is the time of the year when even the administration begins making changes.  Since only half the classrooms are currently under construction, even more are targeted for remodeling.  Since the first half are not finished....this means that there is a severe shortage of new space for administrative offices.

Someone good at math--evidently someone who got a degree that actually resulted in employment--figured out that if the current rate of growth in the number of people employed as administrators continues, in just another 100 years Enema U will qualify as a new Third World Country.  

Many of the new offices will come from slowly moving the emeritus faculty out of offices they have been occupying for the last several decades into their new offices over in Oubliette Hall.    You might be surprised to learn that retired faculty still have offices at the University, but it is true.  In some cases it is because the faculty are still very productive in their research.  However, in most cases it is because the offices these faculty members occupy are no longer considered suitable for any other use.  (And in at least a few cases, the only thing protecting the occupants of the building from asbestos-laden tile floors is the thick layer of slowly composting term papers dating back to the Korean War.).

There will be little opposition to such moves from the current faculty (at least not until next month when the administration decides it needs their office space).  The problem with most faculty--our little hot-house flowers--is that they demand to be treated like orchids, while in reality, the blooming idiots behave like weeds.  At most, there will be a brief argument over who gets their filing cabinet or a now empty bookcase, but sadly, no sense of loss for a colleague of decades.

This, of course, reminds me of an old story that hasn't happened, yet.  One day, the Vice President Of Student Inarticulation was walking down the the corridor of Prokynesis Hall, the Administration Building.  As he passed the open door of one of the Associate Deans, he couldn't help but notice that the man was sitting at his desk, just crying his eyes out.

"Bob, what's the matter?'

Bob lifted his face from his hands and looked up at his friend.  Still sobbing, he could just barely find the voice to whisper.

"My student died."

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Epiphany

When I first started studying history, I had an amazing and sudden insight: people throughout time--no matter when or where they had lived--were just like me.  I'm sure for most people this was an obvious conclusion, easily reached by everyone except someone who had spent the first half of his life studying machines.

For me, however, the idea that, if I really studied people from a certain time or place, I could eventually understand them and realize that our commonalities were far greater than our differences was quite an epiphany.  (For those of you who don't know, an epiphany is that sudden moment when you are studying late at night, all alone, and have a mental breakthrough. Like Archimedes, you jump up, yelling "Eureka, I understand it.")

An epiphany is the second best feeling in life.  If you don't know what the best is, you probably shouldn't be reading my blog.

And through the years, I think I have been fairly successful at climbing into the heads of people who lived during the times I have studied.  I haven't been very successful with slave owners or the French in general, but overall, I think I have done okay.  People in the past are easy, the people I have the hardest time understanding are the people in the world today.

Thirty years ago, my wife and I made a trip to Zhongshan, China.  This was so long ago that most people still called it Red China.  China had just started opening up its free economic trade zones and we were among the first to visit.  This was a great time to visit China--the whole country was on the verge of a dynamic tidal wave of expansion, but the most common vehicles on the road were bicycles and weird reproductions of a 1949 Ford stake bed truck.  This was a country with one foot in the future while the other was firmly planted in a time before I had been born.  The China we visited was closer to the 1940's than the present.

My wife and I had lunch at the Chung Shan Hot Springs Golf Club, which boasted a golf course designed by Arnold Palmer.  Strangely, the golf course--the first in China--also boasted a Ferris wheel.  While we ate our meal, we had a perfect view of the Ferris wheel, and about a hundred yards past the carnival ride, we could watch a farmer plow his rice paddy with the help of a water buffalo.  I asked, and my guide assured me, that the expense of riding the Ferris wheel was well beyond the means of the farmer.

I still wonder what the farmer thought about as he labored behind the water buffalo.  Did he feel anger at a world that could afford the incredible extravagance of wasting so much money on a Ferris wheel while he labored in his fields using technology that was thousands of years old?

I have to admit, the farmer is not the only person in today's world that I have trouble understanding.  I have visited sweat shops in Honduras and watched while children made soccer balls.  Do those kids ever get to play with one of those balls?  I have had my share of mindless jobs where the fingers do the work while the imagination soars to an imaginary  escape.  What do those children think about as their nimble fingers sew those seams?  Are they grateful for a job that feeds them even as they make toys for children far luckier than they are?  Do they hate those children?

What do those people think about as they labor to make the endless stream of crap we buy: that cheap and useless garbage that our country squanders its fortune on?  (You know--the the x-ray glasses, the bobble-head dogs, and the chia pet dolls, etc.).   What does a man think about while he works desperately to make items that possess no conceivable practical value?  Does he hate the people who degrade him with pointless labor or thank them for the employment that feeds his family?

A Roman farmer two millennia ago probably worried about his children, the fight he had with his wife, and what the weird aches and pains he was experiencing meant about his future health.  He worried about the price of his crops, the weather, and his livestock.  I can understand that man, but how do I ever understand the man who plows his field in the shadow of that Ferris wheel?

I'm still waiting for that epiphany.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Thomas Jefferson Was Right

Once again our nation has been subjected to the political kabuki theater that we call the State of the Union.  And once again, I wonder why the nation allows itself to be subjected to such a pointless pep rally without even the promise of a sock hop in the gym afterwards.

This nonsense is not really necessary.  Article II, Section 3 of our constitution says that "He [the president] shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

George Washington interpreted this as a speech, following a custom that had long been in practice in England, the annual "Speech From the Throne" to the assembled houses of Parliament.  Our founding fathers were well aware of the annual custom where a bloated, inbred monarch would read a prepared speech (traditionally with a German accent) to a Parliament who were just whiling away the time until the pubs opened.  (If you are interested in such trivia, I recommend reading the missive from George III in 1775.  He was outraged at the cheeky Americans who were in desperate need of chastising.   He predicted the revolt would fold as soon as the rebels felt "a smart blow.")

This presidential version of performance art upset Jefferson, who believed the Federalist Party of Washington and Adams was taking on too much of the trappings of a monarchy.  A deep believer in a democracy steered by the wisdom of an independent populace, Jefferson went out of his way as president to strip the office of all such grandeur.  President Jefferson frequently met guests personally at the White House front door dressed in his robe and slippers.  This deliberate act was to emphasize his belief that politicians--in particular the president--should always be seen as a man of the people.

Jefferson wanted to distance his messages to Congress from the royal recommendations (read that as "demands") of a monarch, so he sent written messages to Congress that were read aloud by a clerk.  You get the general impression that if Jefferson could have mailed the letter to Congress with postage due, he would have.

Every president from Jefferson through Taft followed his lead and sent only written messages to Congress.  It was Woodrow Wilson who broke tradition and delivered a speech to Congress.  Wilson probably wanted Congress to pay attention to his message, since it had been the practice in Congress for years for the assembled legislators to bolt for the cloakroom as soon as the clerk began reading the president's letter.

After Wilson, for the next sixty-odd years, presidents frequently--but not always--delivered speeches before a joint session of Congress.  The last president to send a written message was Jimmy Carter (evidently in the belief that the country had suffered enough).  Since then, no president has been merciful enough to spare the country the burden of yet another political speech.  And the speeches have been generally recognized by political pundits as fairly useless.  And boring.

The entire spectacle has gotten silly.  Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee camps out in the capitol with a pup tent two days early so she can get a seat on the aisle and fawn over the President like a $10 hooker in a bar at closing time.  And that was how she acted when Bush was president.  Now that Obama is president, the Secret Service is thinking about using a taser on her.

And are we really supposed to feel secure in the knowledge that a single member of the cabinet is selected to stay away from the capitol during the speech, so that, if some kind of catastrophe wipes out all of the administration, our government will continue?  Do we really want the Secretary of Urban Bed Wetting--a member of the cabinet so unpopular that he couldn't even get invited to the State of the Union speech--to singlehandedly rebuild the entire national government?

And lastly, do we have to continue the practice of the president's inviting guests that he can introduce during his speech?  To Washington insiders, these guests are referred to as "Lenny Skutniks."  President Reagan began the practice in 1982, when he invited Mr. Skutnik to the speech after his heroic actions following a plane crash.  I have no objections to inviting civilians, but the practice of inviting members of our military has become somewhat cloying.  These men and women deserve our thanks and respect--something that does not seem consistent with treating them as props in a presidential version of "show-and-tell."

Jefferson was right: we should return to the days when the President's letter is read by a clerk while all of Congress hides in the cloak room.