- Category: 2021
Christopher Columbus and I have history. In the mid-1970s, while sitting over lunch in a villa overlooking Santa Margherita, I remarked that Columbus had apparently spent some time as a pirate after reading an article in the International Herald Tribune about his privateering days. In response, my estranged Genoese stepfather physically assaulted me.
I acknowledge that Columbus was probably a brilliant man. The son of a Genoese merchant, he was brought up in the same tradition. He took to the sea at an early age, traveled widely, and learned from those travels. He was self-taught in Latin, Portuguese, and Castilian. He read widely about astronomy, geography, and history. Notably, he learned cartography. He, along with the foremost scholars of Europe, knew that the Earth was round. From the Ninth Century, Islamic scholar Al-Farghani also knew the Earth's circumference to a great degree of accuracy. However, confusion over the difference between nautical and Arabic miles caused his estimate to be far shorter.
In the capitals of Europe, Columbus's idea that sailing to the Orient could be accomplished by going west over the Atlantic. He tried Portugal, sent his brother to try England, and was on his way to France when the King and Queen of Spain stopped him and brought him back for more discussions. Eventually, he would negotiate the rank of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroyship and Governorship of new lands he claimed for Spain. Additionally, he would get 10% of all revenues from the lands he discovered and an influence in the choice of appointees to office in those lands.
Much of Columbus' life is mired in conflict and controversy. Even in his own time, his treatment of colonists and natives drew much criticism. At one point, he was jailed in Spain for his actions in the Americas.
On his first trip to the Americas, Columbus arrived in the Bahamas, called by the natives "Guanahani." His journal entry for 12 October 1492 on the topic of the inhabitants provides insight into the man: "They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion". Of the Arawak peoples, he noted that their primitive weapons and military tactics made them susceptible to easy conquest. He wrote: "These people are straightforward in war-like matters … I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men and govern them as I pleased."
On his second voyage, he encountered the Caribs. To be blunt, the Americas were no idyllic paradise; Native Americans were not monolithic. Some were timid and ran off upon the Europeans' approach. On the other hand, the Caribs were as ruthless and violent as the colonizers. The two groups collaborated and fought each other. Both routinely engaged in murder, butchery, rape, and slavery of their own kind and of each other. However, the Europeans had the resources to do so on the scale of hundreds or thousands of Native Americans: males, 14 and up, were forced into gold mining, the women into sex slavery.
His last two trips were failures. On the third, the Spanish Crown relieved him of command for his harsh suppression of a rebellion by his own European colonialists. It instituted an investigation, which resulted in his being sent back to Spain and imprisoned. His negotiation skills won him freedom at the hands of the Crown and support for a fourth voyage. On this one, he was refused harbor entry by his own governor upon the approach of a hurricane. He barely made it back to Spain with his life and partial crew.
To say that Columbus committed genocide is silly hyperbole. However, his arrival started a long history in which a population rich in advanced technology, weaponry, and immune system response decimates a population without these strengths. There were many instances where Native Americans were specifically targeted for removal or destruction with the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." This is the entire history of the American West, of which so many in the United States are so proud and see as their foundational myth: the policy of forcibly removing Natives to reservations is, by definition, genocide.
I suspect the worst we can say about Columbus himself is that he was a man of his time. The Fifteenth Century was not a pretty place in the Americas or Europe. On both sides of the Atlantic, humans were amazingly brutal to one another. Eight hundred years later, we view these events through the lens of the French Enlightenment. Essentially put, the notion that human life has some intrinsic value, that "pursuit of happiness, the sovereignty of reason, and the evidence of the senses as the primary sources of knowledge and advanced ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state" are the ideas of dead white western men living in France and England in the 18th Century. Before this time, there was no concept of human or personal rights.
I have often said that judging people in history based on concepts that did not exist at the time is unreasonable. Columbus enslaved because that is what you did to conquered people in those days. Slavery was not questioned until the French Enlightenment. Before that, it reaches back into time. The word "slave" comes from Slav. In the Middle Ages, more Western European people routinely enslaved Slavs. The great Moslem Empire, with running water, lighted streets, and libraries from Constantinople to Cordoba, had them. In the Moslem Empire, Islamists, Christians, and Jews could all live and pray because it is written in their Book. But they had slaves. Reaching back to the dawn of art, Hecuba laments her impending fate as a slave as Troy falls and its women are raped.
Sure, Columbus may have been a man of his time. His biography indicates that while he was a good negotiator with the Spanish Crown, he was a poor leader and organizer. And he was, by current standards, a butcher. So, should he be lionized now?
Ironically, Columbus Day was instituted to alleviate early Twentieth-century racism directed at incoming Italians and other Southern Europeans. In this time of continued racism and neglect of the original people of the Americas, perhaps it is time to refocus our attention on the millions who lost a continent and are now living lives of intractable poverty and neglect on paltry, remote pieces of land, not even of their choosing. I think we are overdue. Do we celebrate a brutal time in the past that, hopefully, we have moved beyond as civilization? Do we do something to make our present world a better place for those in need?
- Category: 2021
One quarter remains.
Two events joined to make this week of note to me. I passed 66 and 2 months when I can collect 100% of my social security. This is meaningful to me not because I expect to need a larger paycheck from the Federal Government but more from a sense of responsibility as a citizen. My parents and schooling led me to believe in the Rousseauan social contract that all members of a society are bound to contribute to the general well-being in return for the benefits. Socrates embodied this concept when he accepted his sentence to drink hemlock rather than an offered escape. Cassius Clay understood this when he went to jail for refusing to fight in Vietnam. He paid his debt to society and was reborn as the great Muhammad Ali. Both understood that when you live in a society and receive its rewards, you assume an implicit obligation to contribute to that society’s ability to confer those rewards. I cannot aspire to the heights of Rousseau, Socrates, and Ali. But as a citizen, I feel I should make my fair and due contribution to society’s production. Social Security is having financial problems because people are retiring too early, living too long, and not making their fair contribution to the common good. I cannot be one of the people who contribute to burden and maintain my pride.
The other event of the week was the southward equinox. One quarter is all that remains in the year. Entering the year of my retirement is like the passage of my life. I feel that roughly one-quarter of it remains. I’ll be 87 at the end of this next quarter and assume there won’t be much more left to go. I see retirement as a time to maximize my learning and training, using what I’ve learned to hone myself into a final product. In 2020, I let myself slip under the stress of working under COVID and all the nonsense over masks and vaccinations. One quarter remains. It opens as a challenge: what can I do with the time? How can I increase what excellence I have to contribute to both my self-satisfaction and to society?
- Category: 2021
Today at work, I received an all-hands message asking for volunteers to staff a call center to contact Americans stranded in Afghanistan and provide instructions on how to get to the Kabul airport and what to do upon arrival. The message came with the caveat that there was a preference for staff trained in crisis management as it is not expected that Americans in-country in Afghanistan would be entirely in control of their faculties.
I saw email traffic offering counseling services to military and civilians who have spent the better part of two decades involved in the war: men and women who had deployed to the country half a dozen times or more, who had friends there, who lost friends there, who had spent 20 years trying to make a difference for the better. Emails told us to be sensitive to new patterns of depression, excessive drinking, or isolation.
Meanwhile, we have six or so thousand troops crammed into a tiny geographic location trying to get people out. They are sitting ducks…..not to the Taliban, but to extremists who do not take orders from the Taliban and who are even more radicalized. A terrorist attack now would be catastrophic.
We are watching a humanitarian crisis, a national humiliation, and are a thin line away from catastrophe. Americans do not generally have sufficient knowledge of history to be aware of what happened in this place in 1842 when 4,500 British and Indian regular troops attempted to withdraw from Afghanistan with 14,000 civilians: men, women, and children. You can bet it is on the minds of the American diplomats and troops still in-country.
When we went in, I remember a news article recounting how a tribal chieftain remarked to the U.S. military leaders briefing them on the U.S. invasion: “You can come, but will you be able to leave.?” I knew what he meant; I’m sure our leadership knew what he meant.
In the U.S., all we can do is hope for the best.
- Category: 2021
On March 2, 2020, I sat with Denise in our favorite Chinese buffet restaurant. While I always try to sit facing away from any of those obnoxious televisions that have invaded even restaurants, I could not help but be aware of the CNN news feed. They were reporting that asymptomatic COVID-19 transmission had been confirmed. I knew at that moment that it would become a pandemic. We went into weekend isolation on that date. On April 24, 2021, we went into the grocery store to buy a week’s groceries for the first time since that date. It had been two and a half weeks since my second shot and one and a half weeks since Denise’s. Since mask-wearing was well-enforced in enclosed spaces enforced here in Maryland, we felt that the risk had been sufficiently attenuated. Two weeks later, we had our first unmasked meal with others: a Mother’s Day lunch with our daughter and son-in-law. May 15, Maryland is dropping most of its COVID restrictions this weekend. According to the Associated Press, 15% of Americans are confident they will not get vaccinated, and 17% say that they probably will not. KFF breaks the data down further, indicating that 12% of Democrats have adopted a wait-and-see approach, 4% will get vaccinated only if required, and 3% will definitely not get it. These numbers balloon to 20%, 14%, and 8%, respectively, for Republicans and 19%, 13%, and 7% for Independents. Epidemiologists do not think herd immunity is possible with such numbers.
In December, I did an informal look at the relationship between national GDP and COVID mortality and caseload based on data from Our World in Data. I found that countries, mainly in Asia, with more aggressive, successful COVID suppression had a much smaller negative impact on GDP than their more lax counterparts. In this country, it has been the COVID and vaccine deniers who have been most vocal about the economy. Of course, one cannot expect people whose brains are already too muddled to understand or accept the overwhelming science on COVID and the worth of vaccinations to put credence into the opinions of experts at MIT and the University of Chicago on the topic of the dismal science. So we have a situation where the vocal minority is doing nothing except whine about personal rights and the economy while the rest of us wear the masks and get the shots to raise the economy out of the Trump depression and get the nation going again. But there are enough of them to prevent us from getting to herd immunity. The damage they do is not limited to COVID. The anti-vax movement had enabled the return of measles, mumps, and rubella, endangering populations worldwide.
The minority who make the most noise about their patriotism and rights, most likely to wave the flag and declare political opponents un-American, are the very same ones who will do nothing for the national interest. Vague fears of vaccines, their side effects, and even Big Pharma are enough to prevent them from doing what most of us have easily stepped up to. In another time, we had a term for this type of person: “patriot-lite.”
- Category: 2021
Exercise has solid benefits for mental health. This is well-substantiated in the scientific literature. Higher intensity seems to improve my mood more effectively than slower steady-state exercise. A good body pump following a workout leaves me feeling completely high. This morning, I dragged myself out for a six miler. I’m in a Covid funk. A positive COVID case in my office suite and the ongoing litany of complaints from COVID and vaccine deniers has sapped what I call “life morale.” This is the wrong place for me. Low life morale makes me lethargic and passive. Motivating myself to run or lift becomes difficult. If I succumb and start missing workouts, I will rapidly spiral downward.
With this in mind, I began my run. As I clicked off the miles, my thoughts focused on telling myself that this is where fitness gets done. Not every run can be a singular occasion to bond with body and nature. Sometimes, it is just about getting out there and trudging through the miles. Usually, by about mile three, my spirits have lifted. I ease into the rhythm of the run, and my pace quickens by over a minute per mile. I must consciously dial down my enthusiasm and force myself to slow down. Not today. Mile five was no more lively than the first.
I recently read “Run Less Run Faster,” which advances a running program based on running quality miles only, based on Jack Daniels’ VDOT calculations. Since it was after dawn, I decided to add the first repeat workout for 5K training: 2 x 400 meters. The two repeats were unexpectedly easy at my prescribed pace. I started at a minute per mile faster and had to slow down to get within range of my pace. More importantly, the quicker running seemed to peel back my funk. After just a couple of minutes of feeling my heart rate go up, of feeling my body begin to burn oxygen at a near-anaerobic pace, running at 85-90% of my maximum effort, my fog cleared away.
We now know that the runner’s high is often produced not by endorphins but by endocannabinoids, typically after several hours of vigorous activity. Short repeats stimulate dopamine production, the pleasure response system at the heart of all addictive behaviors and drugs, from cannabis to alcohol to oxycontin. Dopamine is evolution’s reward system for behaviors that increase the reproductive success of hunter-gatherers, long-distance hunting and gathering, eating high-calorie foods, and sex. Today we no longer persistence hunt, but regular exercisers enjoy the rewards of the long hunt. Regular exercise increases the sensitivity of dopamine receptors and stimulates the neurotransmitter’s production. Athletes get a dual reward: more dopamine and greater sensitivity to it. When I downshifted and sped up for those repeats in the last mile, I gave myself an unanticipated dose of dopamine. I expected that the faster running would increase my discomfort.
Instead, it made me high, and the high has lasted all day.