Whiskey and cigar day: Twain and Churchill

November 30, 2007

Mark Twain, afloat

November 30 is the birthday of Mark Twain (1835), and Winston Churchill (1874).

Twain had a comment on recent actions at the Texas Education Agency:

In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made School Boards.

– Following the Equator; Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar

The Nobel literature committees were slow; Twain did not win a Nobel in Literature; he died in 1910. Churchill did win, in 1953.

Both men were aficianadoes of good whiskey and good cigars. Both men suffered from depression in old age.

Both men made a living writing, early in their careers as newspaper correspondents. One waged wars of a kind the other campaigned against. Both were sustained by their hope for the human race, against overwhelming evidence that such hope was sadly misplaced.


Both endured fantastic failures that would have killed other people, and both rebounded.

Both men are worth study.

Twain, on prisons versus education: “Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It’s like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won’t fatten the dog.” – Speech, November 23, 1900

Churchill on the evil men and nations do:

“No One Would Do Such Things”

“So now the Admiralty wireless whispers through the ether to the tall masts of ships, and captains pace their decks absorbed in thought. It is nothing. It is less than nothing. It is too foolish, too fantastic to be thought of in the twentieth century. Or is it fire and murder leaping out of the darkness at our throats, torpedoes ripping the bellies of half-awakened ships, a sunrise on a vanished naval supremacy, and an island well-guarded hitherto, at last defenceless? No, it is nothing. No one would do such things. Civilization has climbed above such perils. The interdependence of nations in trade and traffic, the sense of public law, the Hague Convention, Liberal principles, the Labour Party, high finance, Christian charity, common sense have rendered such nightmares impossible. Are you quite sure? It would be a pity to be wrong. Such a mistake could only be made once—once for all.”

—1923, recalling the possibility of war between France and Germany after the Agadir Crisis of 1911, in The World Crisis,vol. 1, 1911-1914, pp. 48-49.

Image of Twain aboard ship – origin unknown. Image of Winston S. Churchill, Time Magazine’s Man of the Year for 1941, copyright 1941 by Time Magazine.

More on Mark Twain

More on Winston Churchill

Orson Welles, with Dick Cavett, on Churchill, his wit, humor and grace (tip of the old scrub brush to the Churchill Centre):

Unintelligent designs in Texas

November 29, 2007

The Texas Education Agency has lost its mind.  Again, or still.

P.Z. has details. I’m off to discuss economics with economics teachers.  Talk among yourselves until I get back later tonight.

If someone organizes a march on the TEA with torches and other farm implements, somebody text message me, please.

Amory Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute: ‘Don’t do this’

November 29, 2007

Steven Milloy won’t like this. It’s a parable, based on a true story, about why we shouldn’t willy-nilly increase DDT spraying, anywhere. Amory Lovins tells it quickly, and well.

So in this tranquil but unwavering spirit of applied hope, let me tell you a story.

In the early 1950s, the Dayak people in Borneo had malaria. The World Health Organization had a solution: spray DDT. They did; mosquitoes died; malaria declined; so far, so good. But there were side-effects. House roofs started falling down on people’s heads, because the DDT also killed tiny parasitic wasps that had previously controlled thatch-eating caterpillars. The colonial government gave people sheet-metal roofs, but the noise of the tropical rain on the tin roofs kept people awake. Meanwhile, the DDT-poisoned bugs were eaten by geckoes, which were eaten by cats. The DDT built up in the food chain and killed the cats. Without the cats, the rats flourished and multiplied. Soon the World Health Organization was threatened with potential outbreaks of typhus and plague, which it would itself have created, and had to call in RAF Singapore to conduct Operation Cat Drop–parachuting a great many live cats into Borneo.

This story–our guiding parable at Rocky Mountain Institute–shows that if you don’t understand how things are connected, often the cause of problems is solutions. Most of today’s problems are like that. But we can harness hidden connections so the cause of solutions is solutions: we solve, or better still avoid, not just one problem but many, without making new ones, before someone has to go parachuting more cats. So join me in envisioning where these linked, multiplying solutions can lead if you apply and extend what you’ve learned and take responsibility for creating the world you want. Details of this business-led future will be described this autumn in a book my team and I are now finishing, called Reinventing Fire.

[Here, used to be a Google Video of that part of the speech. O tempora, O mores! Is the format even available anymore?  Below, video of a 2011 commencement speech, with the same parable near the beginning.]

Amory Lovins is founder, president and Chief Scientist with the Rocky Mountain Institute.  This speech, from August 2007, can also be viewed at RMI’s site, where the full text is also available.

“Effects of DDT in Borneo,” a flow chart showing the need for “Operation Cat Drop,” the UN-sponsored parachuting of cats into Borneo after a DDT-caused disastrous avalanche of events. From ActionOutdoors.org

Jefferson DeBlanc, teacher, Medal of Honor winner

November 28, 2007

Jefferson DeBlanc, Sr, at the WWII Memorial - Medal of Honor Winner

You can just see the kid trying to get the goat of the physics teacher:“Hey, Teach! What do you think 5Gs feel like when one of those fighter pilots pulls a real tight turn?”

And you can see the teacher at the chalkboard scribbling a formula the kid doesn’t want to know, and a smile creeping over his face.

“It’s nothing like hitting the shark-infested Pacific — salt water, and you’re wounded — and then being traded for a ten-pound sack of rice! That’ll get your gut more.”

And don’t you wonder, did the kids ever think to ask him his view of the campaign against the Japanese in the Solomon Islands, for help on their U.S. history exams? Did they ever think he might have some knowledge to share?

Jefferson DeBlanc would have shared wisdom certainly, though it’s uncertain he would have shared his war experiences as a fighter pilot. He died last Thursday in St. Martinville, Louisiana. He was 86. DeBlanc was the last surviving Medal of Honor winner from World War II in Louisiana. Col. Jefferson DeBlanc, Sr.

What a story!

The incident that earned Jefferson the nation’s highest military honor took place Jan. 31, 1943, during operations against Japanese forces off Kolombangara Island in the Solomon Islands.

A Japanese fleet was spotted headed toward Guadalcanal. U.S. dive bombers were sent to attack the fleet, with fighter aircraft deployed to protect the bombers. In a one-man Grumman Wildcat fighter, DeBlanc led a section of six planes in Marine Fighting Squadron 112, according to the citation that accompanied his Medal of Honor.

At the rendezvous point, DeBlanc discovered that his plane, which was dubbed “The Impatient Virgin,” was running out of fuel. If DeBlanc battled the Japanese Zero fighter planes, he would not have enough fuel to return to base. Two of his comrades, whose planes malfunctioned, turned back, according to a 1999 article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

“We needed all the guns we could get up there to escort those bombers,” DeBlanc said in the Times-Picayune article. “I figured if I run out of gas, I run out of gas. I figured I could survive a bailout. I had confidence in my will to survive. You’ve got to live with your conscience. And my conscience told me to go ahead.”

DeBlanc and the other pilots waged fierce combat until, “picking up a call for assistance from the dive bombers, under attack by enemy float planes at 1,000 feet, he broke off his engagement with the Zeros, plunged into the formation of float planes and disrupted the savage attack, enabling our dive bombers and torpedo planes to complete their runs on the Japanese surface disposition and withdraw without further incident,” the citation says.

Ultimately, DeBlanc shot down two float planes and three of the fighters. But a bullet ripped through DeBlanc’s plane and hit his instrument panel, causing it to erupt into flames. DeBlanc “was forced to bail out at a perilously low altitude,” according to the citation.

“The guy who shot me down, he saw me bail out,” DeBlanc said in a 2001 article in the State-Times/Morning Advocate of Baton Rouge, La.. “He knew I was alive. I knew they (the Japanese) were looking for me. But I’m not a pessimist. I knew I could survive. I was raised in the swamps.”

A Louisiana kid raised in the swamps, a Tuba City, Arizona, kid raised in a hogan on a reservation, a kid from Fredericksburg, Texas, a kid from Abilene, Kansas, another kid from Columbus, Ohio, a West Point graduate with a corn-cob pipe — the reality of the people who fought the war looks like a hammy line-up for one of the post-war movies about them. Maybe, in this case, there was good reason for the stereotypes.

After his plane was shot down in 1943, DeBlanc swam to an island and slept in a hut until he was discovered by islanders and placed in a bamboo cage. The man who gave a sack of rice for him was Ati, an islander whom DeBlanc later called a guardian angel, responsible for orchestrating his rescue by a U.S. Navy boat.

DeBlanc served a second tour of overseas service in Marine Fighting Squadron 22 in the Marshall Islands. By the end of his service, he had shot down nine enemy planes.

On Dec. 6, 1946, President Truman awarded DeBlanc the Medal of Honor. His other honors include the Distinguished Flying Cross, several awards of the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. In 1972, after serving six years as commander at Belle Chasse Naval Air Station, DeBlanc retired from the Marine Corps Reserve.

Then, as if to make the model for Tom Brokaw’s later book, DeBlanc went back home to mostly-rural Louisiana, and made the world a much better place.

At home, DeBlanc earned two masters’ degrees in education from Louisiana State University in 1951 and 1963, and a doctorate in education from McNeese State University in 1973. For years, he taught in St. Martin parish and supervised teachers.

Just a normal guy to his kids, neighbors and students:

Despite the illustrious awards, [daughter] Romero [DeBlanc] remembers a loving father first and dedicated educator second.

“I was very close to my father,” she said. “I could always talk to him. He taught me to drive. He taught school. He was very friendly with his students. He would come into the classroom and say, ‘I lost the test.’ Then he would look around and find it in the trash can. Of course he placed it in the trash can. He had a great sense of humor.”

Surely DeBlanc’s passing should have been worthy of note on national television news programs, and in the larger national print media. There was a note on the obituary page of the Dallas Morning News, and the Los Angeles Times obituary cited above. But DeBlanc has not yet gotten the recognition he probably deserved. A young cornerback for the Washington Redskins also died over the weekend.

No room for heroes in the news?

Resources for Teachers:

Read the rest of this entry »

Administrivia, and an apology

November 28, 2007

I have crises going on all ends of all candles at the moment.  This is essentially a leisure time activity.  There are lots of good things to talk about, and so little time.

Check out the sites on the blogroll, and check out the carnival buttons (there are lots more carnivals, undoubtedly some good ones I’ve never heard of).

Thank you for reading.  A thousand thank yous for providing comments, especially the really useful ones (you know whose comments those are).

Pragmatic, applied geography: Baghdad

November 27, 2007

Do your students ever ask why we bother to study geography? Consider these sources for a one-day exercise in geography, world history or U.S. history:

How U.S. forces took back Baghdad

al Quaeda map of Baghdad, used to take back Baghdad by U.S. forces

Geographic Travels with Catholicgauze alerts us to this interesting story of applied geography.

The map of Baghdad, above, was found in a raid on an al Quaeda house in the past year. It details the organization of al Quaeda, especially with regard to shipping guns, ammunition and explosives into Baghdad.

Armed with this knowledge, U.S. forces set about severing each of the cells from each other, separating the pieces of the snake to kill the beast.

Here is the New York Times story. (So much for wild claims that “mainstream media” do not cover such news.) Here is the Fox News story, with a link to a .pdf version of the map.

A map drawn by Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — who was killed last year by U.S. forces — turned up last December in an Al Qaeda safe house and essentially gave U.S. war planners insight into the terrorist group’s methods for moving explosives, fighters and money into Baghdad.

“The map essentially laid out how Al Qaeda controlled Baghdad. And they did it through four belts that surrounded the city, and these belts controlled access to the city for reinforcements and weapons and money,” said Maj. Gen. Bob Scales, a FOX News contributor who recently visited Iraq.

That’s what geographic knowledge can do. It can be the difference between peace and war, the difference between life and death.

Why give Holocaust denial a platform?

November 25, 2007


Deborah Lipstadt asks the key question at her blog: Why should any honorable, noble agency give a platform to people who don’t respect the facts and who have a track record of distorting history?

The distinguished debating group, the Oxford Union, has invited history distorter David Irving to speak. He was invited to speak with representatives of the British National Party (BNP), a group not known for tolerance on racial and immigration issues. While there is value to getting a range of views on any issue, Prof. Lipstadt and many others among us think that inviting a known distorter to speak is practicing open-mindedness past the point of letting one’s brains fall out (what is the difference between “open mind” and “hole in the head?”).

You know this story and these characters, right, teachers of history? You should, since these people play important roles in the modern art of history, and in the discussion over what we know, and how we know it. These are issues of “what is truth,” that your students badger you about (rightfully, perhaps righteously).

American teachers of history need to be particularly alert to these issues, since Holocaust deniers have been so successful at placing their material on the internet in a fashion that makes it pop up early in any search on the Holocaust. Most searches on “Holocaust” will produce a majority of sites from Holocaust deniers. It is easy for unwary students to be led astray, into paths of racist harangues well-disguised as “fairness in history and speech.”

Prof. Lipstadt practices history at Emory University in Atlanta, where she is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies. She chronicled much of the modern assault on history in her book, Denying the Holocaust, The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1994). In that book, she documented the work of British historian David Irving, much of which consists of questionable denial of events in the Holocaust.

Cover of Lipstadt's book, Denying the Holocaust

Cover of Deborah Lipstadt’s book, Denying the Holocaust, the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory

Irving sued her for libel in Britain in 2000, where it is not enough to establish the truth of the matter to mount a defense. In a stunning and welcomed rebuke to Holocaust denial and deniers, the judge ruled in her favor, and documented Irving’s distortions in his 350-page opinion.

While his claims are legal in England, in several places in Europe his denial of Holocaust events is not protected as free speech. Traveling in Austria in 2005, he was arrested and imprisoned for an earlier conviction under a law that makes it a crime to deny the events. Prof. Lipstadt opposed the Austrian court’s decision: “I am uncomfortable with imprisoning people for speech. Let him go and let him fade from everyone’s radar screens.”

The drama plays out again. Serious questioning of what happened is the front line of history. Denying what happened, however, wastes time and misleads honest citizens and even serious students, sometimes with bad effect. Santayana’s warning about not knowing history assumes that we learn accurate history, not a parody of it.

This event will raise false questions about censorship of Holocaust deniers, and the discussion is likely to confuse a lot of people, including your students. U.S. history courses in high school probably will not get to the Holocaust until next semester. This issue, now, is an opportunity for teachers to collect news stories that illuminate the practice of history for students. At least, we hope to illuminate, rather than snuff out the candles of knowledge.



%d bloggers like this: