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Monday, December 2, 2013

Sixty-Six Dollars Could Change This Country

America may have to learn its lessons all over again. The painting is by Tom Lovell.
 Let me show you something with sixty-six dollars.

Americans were natural-born fighters, that is for sure. Our Country was born in battle, and it had to fight over and over for its life and its sovereignty. The U. S. fought military battles, verbal battles, trade battles and battles of ideals. It is truly a miracle it survived. With so many battles at its onset, those that survived had to be tough and able to defend. So it is a small wonder that our greatest National heroes were fighters. And it is no small wonder that our culture has produced so many weapons and wars since. Still, I think we have missed the point as we smugly cast a suspicious eye on our past. Violence, weapons, conflicts etc. are only half of the equation that forged the American character, until recent times, when we endeavored to reinvent it. Along with being formidable fighters, our forefathers were also incredible forgivers.
Look no further than a ten dollar bill. There you’ll see the likeness of Alexander Hamilton.  George Washington’s right-hand man during the American Revolution, his Secretary of the Treasury, the man who invented our National banking system and established the U. S. Mint.  He was also killed in a senseless duel with Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804. Few Americans ponder after all of this time how such a brilliant, stalwart patriot got caught up in a duel that cost him his life. Even fewer really appreciate how even then, he managed to save his reputation while granting his challenger his very life.

After refusing to apologize or retract damning remarks made about Vice President Burr by him,  Alexander Hamilton agreed to a duel  to settle their affairs. Hamilton stated before the duel that he would not fire upon Burr, but did not tell his opponent. He kept his word, and left his fate in the hands of the Vice President, who chose to kill him even though Hamilton had intentionally fired his round into the air. Hamilton could not be goaded into killing a man whom he had inadvertently enraged.  His was one of the first of many famous, enigmatic acts of violence in America accompanied by amazing respect and even tolerance or forgiveness towards the enemy. Burr was never prosecuted. It was an honorable disagreement among gentlemen.

Although illegal, the “code of honor” of that time demanded that men be willing to face up to their enemies and answer the challenge of a duel to settle serious disputes. There was a strange kind of superstition that somehow justice would work itself out in these deadly matches. Men of all classes and ethnicities faced off with pistols, rifles, swords and in the South, large Bowie knives. Can you imagine what effect this would have on the political pundits today? Hamilton placed his pride and dignity and reputation above his own life.  He must have reasoned that the former were worth more than the latter. Or at least the latter would be worthless without them. And so he chose pistols with hair triggers.

America was new and was feeling its oats. The idea of a “free press” was new and untested. Soon serious pitfalls became evident. In the beginning of an ominous cultural trend, the disagreement which culminated into the infamous Burr-Hamilton duel began with Hamilton’s private comments being indiscreetly publicized in the newspapers.  It seems even in its infant stages, the American Media was determined to fan the flames of controversy and contention.  Later the scandal of the illegal and infamous duel was fueled by them, and Burr’s political career was trashed.  So in a stroke of controlled, albeit illegal violence, America lost two of its greatest leaders. And it could be argued that the Media was the cause of the unnecessary debacle. It made the problem then it railed at the barbarism. Public sentiment began to condemn such uncivilized  traditions. Eventually the tragedy became a benchmark for popular opinion, as more stringent laws were passed and duels began to be restricted to the wilderness regions.

But America was a big place, habits die hard, and there was a lot of wilderness. Fifty years later the proliferation of duels in frontier California proves that the gentleman’s duel was still a persistent element in American folk-justice.  John Boessenecker reveals a hearty tradition of dueling in his thorough scrutiny of early California violence. I just read his exhausting study of it called Gold Dust & Gunsmoke and promise you that you will enjoy it if you like the mixture of truth and blood and history. Boessenecker makes Texas history appear quite tame, compared to the lawless hell of the gold miners in pre-statehood California.  Granted there were a lot of Texans there adding to the mayhem. And once again, the trouble usually started in the papers. Boessenecker  comments that dueling was almost a part of a California newspaperman’s job description, as they were often invited to back up their words with bullets. Time after time, something printed became the cause of a life-or-death match between opponents, who were often politicians or rival editors of local newspapers. And the average California editor was as game as a fighting rooster!

This caused me to ponder. This reckless abuse of the Media in Victorian times led to actual bloodshed when reputations were assassinated, and the damage was considered so bad that men were willing to kill or die rather than live in a world with those words in print left unanswered. Published insults could not be left unchallenged, or for that matter undefended.  Yet today accusers and the accused have no forum to end such injustices. There is no “High Noon,” or its offspring, justice and closure. Today’s politicians must endure the most outrageous lies and satire, proliferated by the various tentacles of the Media, with little or no recourse. Lawsuits eventually took the place of these fights to the death, but they also ended forever the other subtle outcomes from these matches.

For instance Boessenecker tells of a couple of instances where, after the two parties shot or stabbed, but failed to kill each other, and yet became mutually satisfied, they were known to shake hands afterwards. No hard feelings! Sometimes they even became good friends.  There was a strange shared mutual respect, even an admiration for the other! Can you imagine Hannity and Pelosi hugging and walking arm in arm after a good slugging? But that’s what this Country needs.
One jewel among Gold Dust & Gunsmoke’s treasury of criminal outrages is a tale of two San Francisco journalists. After months of insults and lawsuits, two editors for different French newspapers met to kill one another like gentlemen in a ferocious duel with rapiers!  On an isolated beach 12 miles away from San Francisco, Rapp and Thiele lunged at one another like Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and began to slaughter each other with gusto. They stabbed and wrestled like to feisty granddaddy crawdads. After considerable blood was spilt, and they both were sufficiently wounded, they were pried apart.  Almost immediately they shook hands and declared their instant and lasting friendship! How bizarre. How… American!

There is a mystery here and it is worth being explored! It seems these face-offs helped tremendously to dampen reckless sarcasm… and foolish enthusiasm for physical retribution as well. Has anybody noticed how chummy the elder Bush and Clinton were, after their battles?

Boessenecker also relates how the editor of the San Francisco Herald, chronic duelist John Nugent survived a bloody, bone-smashing duel with dueling enthusiast Tom Hayes, only to become a good friend of his afterwards. So sometimes violent, blood-thirsty adversaries become bosom buddies… after trying to kill each other… but only after the showdown… Interesting.

This might sound silly or incidental. But it is not. I first saw this behavior in my own dealings with a schoolyard bully named James Mackintosh, in the fourth grade.  James was very big and mouthy and very pushy, and he drove me crazy all through Elementary School until finally I took him on one day during recess. I stood up to him and we got into a scuffle, and he eventually had me tied into a knot and held me between his powerful legs, squeezing me like a bug-eyed cartoon character. Soon I said “uncle.” I had never been made to do that before.  In fact I did not even understand when he demanded that I say uncle.  I named every uncle I had!  Anything to breathe again.  Afterwards we were friends, just like that. But he never picked on me again. In fact he promised to defend me if the need ever arose.

I have decided this is what we have lost in the American character.  This obscure making –up mechanism. We still have the violence part. But we have lost the gracious winner part.  Or the magnanimous conqueror part.  Lawsuits are rarely satisfactory, divorces rarely amicable. The courts usually fail to give us the direct eye to eye conflict we need to find closure. Americans do not know how to win or be the winner, much less how to be a loser, and in fact have made winning a license to prance, dance and provoke our adversaries. Professional Sports is the leader in the new paradigm, of ecstatic domination. But it is the domain of insignificant, small-minded egomaniacs. And it was not always this way. Still in High School sports you see the athletes lining up and shaking hands after the game. THAT is the old America I was proud of.

The first Forgiver in Chief.
I have decided that we all need to go back to Appomattox.  You know, where Generals Grant and Lee ended the Civil War. It turns out that most of the men pictured on our money were not only great leaders, they were great forgivers.  Betrayed by Jefferson and others, Washington led the way as a forgiver to unite our country. Hamilton was a brave soldier, and was able to stand and take a bullet from a man he knew would probably kill him, and leave his life to God or destiny or the marksmanship of his adversary.  But he could not shoot a man who was not his enemy in cold blood. He had to have already forgiven everyone involved to have been so much at peace to face his fate.

As the Commanding General in the Union Army, Ulysses S. Grant orchestrated an unexpected and magnanimous reconciliation with the South. 
And General Grant, on the $50, was no different. He had been chasing and battling General Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army for years, and had seen hundreds of thousands of his men killed in that pursuit, and that day at Appomattox when he rode up, he had to have been so disgusted with the war and the great losses suffered that he wanted to just strike Lee down to the ground.

Lee had come to offer his grandiose sword, and submit himself and his haggard army to the victor. The last time they had seen each other, in the War with Mexico, then Colonel Lee had reprimanded underling Grant for his unbecoming appearance.  Ulysses S. Grant was the poster boy for a slob in uniform. And even now Grant came up in a humble enlisted man’s uniform, half covered with the mud slung on him by jaded cavalry horses, unkempt after weeks on the chase. He could not have cared less, as he entered the little courthouse chosen for this historic exchange with a great deal flowing through his mind; Lee was finally cornered and beaten; President  Lincoln’s instructions in such a case as this; The horrible war was finally over; The negotiations of healing a country were just beginning. And everything he did and said would help or hinder that process.

And President Lincoln’s (on the $5!) instructions were clear and uncomplicated. Grant was Lincoln’s man, as was often said, and he had to follow his orders, regardless of how he felt personally.  Grant was obedient.  And Lincoln’s terms for surrender were... magnanimous.  A baker’s dozen of Union Generals stood around, gawking at history unfold.  In other times and places, the likes of Lee and his officers would have been hunted down and executed with prejudice.  Depending on Lincoln’s terms and Lee’s reaction to them, these Generals were standing ready to call their men into further hostilities, or at the very least a colossal manhunt of Confederate leaders.

But Grant wrote a relatively simple recipe for peace. It was handed to General Lee, who was ready to be arrested, even imprisoned, and everyone watched as he read. This was the greatest moment in American history. It was when we chose what kind of people we were going to be. At least for a few generations. And Lincoln chose for all of us. And he chose gracious. We would be a gracious people. Even with our adversaries who had caused us great loss.

We would be a forgiving people. Like those editorial-crazed California duelists, North and South would shake and go home, and rebuild our lives. Lee had only to promise to lay down his sword, and his men with him, and go home and repair the land- the United States of America.  And now everybody knew what UNITED meant. Lincoln had been willing to lose his best and brightest, to squander is own political fortune, to engage in a terrible civil war to HOLD ON TO THE SOUTH. Like a loving father wrapping his arms around a violent, enraged son, holding on at any cost, Lincoln had held on until the angry son gave out, at his own great peril and at an equally great price. And as soon as the swinging and violence had subsided, he was ready to begin the healing. That is what Americans used to do.

We forgave the English, our tyrants, and became their closest allies.  We forgave Native Americans and set aside lands under their sovereignty. We forgave Mexico and forged a lasting, peaceful partnership. We forgave the Germans and Japanese and rebuilt their countries and became essential trade partners. And so on and so on. And in every case, we should have done just what we did. It is up to the winners to decide whether there will be burning indignation or humble gratitude.

THAT was the America that I was born in. The Yanks, God Bless ‘em, said put down your guns and go home and rebuild your farms and churches and towns and OUR COUNTRY. And we did.  It was hard and there was a lot of baggage with that kind of conflict.  They killed Lincoln and Grant was elected President and proved to be a better general than he was a politician. But I have to give those two credit. They gave us our AMERICAN LEGACY. The old one.

It wasn’t being the policeman of the world, or feeding the world, or leading the world in the race to the moon. It wasn’t about the world. These men knew that the only way that the United States would ever be a light to the world was that it first was a light unto itself.

Being raised in a Christian country, these men had been raised in the Judeo-Christian paradigm, and now was the time to put it into force. Jesus had taught his followers to love their enemies, to be kind to them. Now that the rebels had ceased hostilities, it was past time to turn the other cheek. It was time to remember Jesus’ words, “They will know that you are mine by the way you love one another.” And that all starts with those that you perceive as your enemies. That had to have been hard. But Grant was a good soldier.

Grant’s terms were more than acceptable and Lee walked out of there with his and the South’s dignity intact. The two armies went their separate ways and built the greatest nation on earth.  Only in a land where Jesus Christ reigns could you ever see that kind of forgiveness.  And that kind of forgiveness and tolerance and civility insured recovery and vitality for all. Check out your history, and try to find another example of such gracious terms between blood enemies. Try to find another recovery like that of ours after the War Between the States.  Only under the rule of Christ.  Only in America.

And we have lost that, perhaps our greatest asset.  Today political foes speak with the bravado and venom of those early California editors, but there are no duels to shut them up. They have the safety of anonymity on the Internet, the power of the pulpit, the protection of free speech. But they lack the courage of their convictions.  There is probably nothing they would actually die for.  They have no respect for anyone, they give no quarter and they ask for none. The American conversation has been reduced to crude insults and ruthless, thoughtless character assassinations. Maybe people were more careful about what they said when somebody might meet them in the street, the way Sam Houston did one of his verbal assailants.  We have lost our manners and we have lost our mutual respect and we have lost our FEAR.  It is a kind of intellectual anarchy.

All that is left to complete our fate is social anarchy. Already youths are running the streets with this in mind, knocking innocent people unconscious, proving that violence has nothing to do with poverty, and everything to do with unanswered insolence.  Insolence, rudeness… Just like on TV.

This was what we Texans loved about Gus McRae in Lonesome Dove, when he popped that condescending bartender in the face with his huge Walker Colt. “I can’t tolerate rudeness in a man!” he explained.  Sure Gus was wrong about his methods, but he was right about what was wrong.

Either way, we have lost our sense of mutual recognition and courtesy; Respect for the individual. Respect for those who believe differently from you.  In past times men were willing to DIE for what they believed in. To die over a word. Over a woman. Over disrespect.  If nothing else, you could admire them for their courage.  This was the simple logic of the Comanche.  Even the most basic culture admires sincerity and the selflessness of making personal sacrifice for one’s most valued things, whether family or kinsmen or ideals. At the heart of every true patriot is sacrifice.  Today we are numbed by the monotony of an avalanche of cheap shots.

Today’s notion of patriotism is a flawed conspiracy to make life fair, no matter what the consequences. It is the demand for others, richer than ourselves to sacrifice, even by force.  And it is a social war being executed totally by the Media. Today’s war of words is cheap and shallow, and it has produced a race of arrogant taunters.  There is no question that their lives are far more important to them than their pride or dignity.  They have twisted the words of John F. Kennedy into “Ask not what your country can do for you, DEMAND now that you receive the maximum from your Country!”

And the last thing they understand is what Grant and Lee did that day at Appomattox. They will never understand or practice the civility of worthy adversaries. They will never know or practice unity of purpose.  And that is why they could never rebuild the America they would destroy.

Once again, only in America; The “land of the free.”  Where the free gave rights to those who could and would destroy the plan, who gave up their rights in the name of equality and fairness. And the result will be poverty and slavery to the government.  The duel between our mightiest, mindless midgets is over. Not a bullet will be shot, nobody will die to save the country from itself, and in the end, we will never be able to forgive ourselves. And we can be sure our blood enemies will not.

The old America was one of stand and fight, AND lay down and forgive.  The new America is one of hide and satirize and lay down with one’s sanctimonious hatred.  America is headed for a long, restless sleep.
So that's what you can see in sixty-six dollars. Hopefully you will never look at your money the same again.

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