Saturday, July 23, 2016

Undaunted Courage. Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West. By Stephen E. Ambrose.

There are many who are captivated by the adventure of Lewis and Clark. But what these two military men accomplished, both positive and negative, was far more important than just an exciting story. Their exploration helped to expand a nation from Atlantic to Pacific under one flag. It also facilitated the genocide of western Native American nations. During their travels, Meriwether Lewis described 122 species of fauna and 178 species of flora that were formerly unknown to US and European science. Conversely, this journey also sped the widespread extinction of flora and fauna across this continent. However one chooses to assess the value of their effort, the mission, (established by Thomas Jefferson to map a water route to the Pacific and describe the land, flora, fauna and tribes along the way), had an immense impact on the history of North America.

Undaunted Courage is both a biography of Meriwether Lewis and a chronicle of his famous journey. By taking Lewis separately from his co-commander, we are able to delve more deeply into the mind, demons, character, motivations and personal history of this complex Enlightenment man. Ambrose writes a popular history, rather than a strictly factual academic history. As a result, there are several speculative pictures he paints, such as the rendezvous of Lewis and Clark off of the Ohio River at Clarksville where the expedition began. Characteristically, the author indicates that his description is how it might have gone, given that “we don’t have a single word of description of the meeting of Lewis and Clark.” (Ambrose, p. 117). While Ambrose knows the audience wants an adventure tale, he is usually careful to point out when his description of a buffalo hunt or a confrontation with Native Americans is colored, for public consumption. Even where he does not, discerning non-fiction readers will be able to extract the facts from the legend, by assessing where the author is attempting to get one’s blood pressure to rise.

It is a difficult task, for any author, to write a biography of a Virginia planter turned western explorer. One must provide a fair enough account of the era’s injustices, while presenting the individual as a product of his time. The skill, to give slavery, sexism, and Native American genocide the place they deserve, while not judging an Eighteenth Century man by Twenty-first Century values, will remain a perplexing challenge for historians. Lewis owned slaves. We don’t know if he personally whipped them, but he had an overseer and they were, no doubt beaten. We do not know if he raped slave women, but he would have been unusual among his peers if he had not. While Ambrose will speculate, offering imaginative description regarding travel events throughout his story, he does not offer speculation on these subjects. He comments that “the glittering social, intellectual, economic and political life of Virginia rested on the backs of slaves. Those backs were crisscrossed with scars.” (Ambrose, p. 34). Slavery is covered sporadically throughout the book. Ambrose sensitively portrays the plight of York, Captain Clark’s slave on the journey, who “crossed the continent and returned with his childhood companion, only to be beaten because he was insolent and sulky” when he was “denied not only his freedom but his wife.” (Ambrose, p. 458). This historian covers the constricted lives of white women in less detail. Also, his descriptions of Sacajawea’s role in the party are not as prominent as those in feminist accounts. There is slightly more attention given to the destruction of Native American cultures, and the white attitude of “get out of the way or get killed” (Ambrose, p. 348).  This author intersperses his narrative with brief discussions concerning all of these issues, but they are not principal themes no matter how much they shaped the lives of both oppressor and oppressed. We cannot separate the planters from the slaves, the Native Americans from the pioneers or the men from the women, and hope to have an accurate account of Lewis’s environment. Though the theme of Undaunted Courage was not about these issues, they are an integral part of the history surrounding both the journey and the life of Lewis. While Ambrose did not ignore these concerns, neither did he permit a generous focus upon them.

Though Ambrose only touches upon injustice, he is not uncritical of Lewis. Certainly, he portrays this figure as a superb explorer for his leadership, woodcraft and scientific skills. But the author is quick to point-out failures in judgment or problems of temperament. Ambrose critically examines Lewis’s decisions, (like his determination to divide the party on the return trip), his depressions and his suicide, with as thorough a view as possible given the available information.

The entire project of Undaunted Courage is accomplished without the use of primary sources. Even the letters of Lewis and Clark to their contemporaries are quoted from other historian’s compilations. No new data is contributed by the author. On a positive note, there are also no hare-brained theories or misleading views. There is nothing wrong with marshalling existing resources into an exciting tale; especially when that tale permits a wider audience to access a wealth of history they would not otherwise read. Ambrose created a bestseller that informed hundreds of thousands of readers on a subject they would never have approached. For a non-fiction reader who is looking for an entertaining account of Lewis and the expedition that covers its most important facts, this book is a fine choice.

Ambrose, Stephen E. Undaunted Courage. Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Atheism and the Holocaust. With Consideration of Wiesel and Faust.

The Holocaust has always provided an excellent argument for atheism. Its utter inhumanity leads one to the classic three options to the question “How could an all-powerful, all-knowing deity have allowed this to happen”: 1) God is not all-knowing and all powerful, so is therefore not the god of the Bible. 2) God is all-knowing and all-powerful, so therefore must be malevolent. 3) There is no God. While this progression of ideas makes sense to evidence-based thinkers, religion is based on beliefs. Beliefs are, by definition, ideas that do not have evidence to support them.

Victims of the Holocaust are anything but mute on the existence of God. At Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria, one victim wrote on the wall next to his bunk “If there is a God, he will have to fall on his knees and beg my forgiveness.” Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel is eloquent on this point in his memoir Night. There, Wiesel recalls attending a religious service, while he was an inmate at Auschwitz, where those present are blessing God. He writes “Why should I bless Him? In every fiber I rebelled. Because He had had thousands of children burned in His pits? Because He kept six crematories working night and day, on Sundays and feast days? Because in His great might He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many factories of death? … My eyes were open and I was alone –terribly alone in a world without God. (Wiesel, pp. 64-5).

After his liberation from Auschwitz, Wiesel’s religiosity does rebound. His relationship to the God of his childhood is permanently changed. But he identifies himself as a believer. This is not an uncommon reaction to trauma or inhumanity. The book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War chronicles the continuing faith in God. Northern citizens saw their victory as evidence of God’s championing of their righteous cause. Southerners saw their loss and devastation as a test of their faith provided by God. Only a minority contemplated the fields of slaughter and thought “there is no God.” Of course tragedies like the Civil War and the Holocaust do produce their share of atheists. But the majority of people fall back on their faith as a support through times of crisis and loss. For many, the idea that there is some all-powerful creature watching over them, even though they do not understand their suffering, is more attractive than the idea that there is no one in charge and events are open to chaos or chance. Rare is the cancer patient who throws-off her religion the day of her diagnosis; or the civilian during wartime who decides there is no God when the bombs are falling. These examples exist, but they are the minority. People like order and protection in their world. But that’s the way people are: afraid of the void.

Even as atheists, we have to admit that the Judeo-Christian happy ending is more attractive than our version of the finale. The picture of one’s self moving on to an afterlife when she dies; purportedly one where a friendly cosmic father welcomes her and she gets to party with dead loved ones for eternity, is more appealing than the scientific facts accepted by most atheists. Accepting rational, scientific conclusions, means facing a stark reality where you end when your brain ceases to function.

So, if the world is capable of having repeated genocides like the Holocaust, and the human population persists in the belief in an invisible super-dad, then we have a long road ahead towards a total acceptance of science and reason. We may as well make the journey with equanimity. There’s no point in frustration over the failure of most people to see what is evident to any rational, scientific mind. We do not need others to validate our perspective. Let’s leave that insecurity to the religious, whose worldview is based upon a more ethereal foundation than ours. Sure, we are going to need to respond to political abuses by believers with competence and intelligence. The fundamentalist shooters (be they Christians at women’s health clinics or Muslims at airports), the “God Hates Fags” protesters at funerals of LGBTQ soldiers, the attempts at censorship and the attempts to impose religion on government, these all require response. But let’s not lose sight of the rationality that brought us to atheism. Let’s leave the emotionalism, which burns those who bear it, to people of faith. There is no point in struggling to make others accept our ideas. No one’s going to hell if they do not swallow our catechism; that’s someone else’s story. If we have not learned to take that cleansing breath in the face of religion, perpetual anger and bitterness will be our reward.

So, when facing issues like the Holocaust, where one faith tries to wipe another off the planet, where those of faith persist in belief, we atheists can conduct ourselves sensibly. We have our communities (like this one online). We can be thoughtful and responsive, rather than reactive. We can make our points, share our ideas and live our lives the way we see fit.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Vintage Books, 2009.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.