Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Book Review for Abe

Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief
By James M. McPherson
New York: The Penguin Press, 2008, 329 pp.

By Leiland Tanner

Respected American Civil War historian James M. McPherson’s “Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief” is an engaging read suited for both the casual reader and the motivated student of Abraham Lincoln or the Civil War. As McPherson’s most recent work, it is an intimate examination of the military leadership exercised by President Abraham Lincoln during his four years as Commander in Chief. McPherson writes this book as an analytical narrative calling upon nearly five decades of personal research in primary source documents, and in Pulitzer Prize winning fashion he is able to weave together an accurate and flowing account of the Civil War from a perspective that is often overlooked. As McPherson posits, “In the vast literature on our sixteenth president, however, the amount of attention devoted to his role as commander in chief is disproportionately far smaller than the actual percentage of time he spent on that task.”

It was the whole of his presidential term that Lincoln devoted to military oversight in developing strategy, appointing leadership, and most crucially, setting precedent in defining his war time presidential powers. McPherson frames his book around these aspects of Lincoln’s career as commander in chief, pointing out the positive victories and accomplishments as well as the disastrous mistakes and failures, all the while focusing the main theme of the book on the fact that it was because of the decisions made and leadership executed by Lincoln that he was able to win the war against the Rebels and keep the Union intact. The book is organized into historically chronological chapters that begin with Lincoln’s election in 1860.

The first chapters deal primarily with Abraham Lincoln as the new president and the steep learning curve he faced when it came to mastering military strategy. McPherson dives into the military mindset of Lincoln as he struggled to assemble and organize an army with very little quality resources at all, and as he diligently studied tactics and strategies to better qualify the decisions he would make and further gain the support of the public in his military actions, a feat he desperately needed to be successful on any front of the war. In the following chapters, the bulk of the text is focused on Lincoln’s oversight of military campaigns and his constant internal war to fill and sustain leadership positions with men who would confront the enemy and carryout the president’s battle strategies. The name of General George B. McClellan in the text is one synonymous with a thorn in Lincoln’s side, and the conflicts between the general and the commander in chief during the first two years of the war are described in great detail.

It was a frustrating struggle for Lincoln of appointing and removing commanding officers for either their blatant disregard for authority or their inability to move on the enemy and accomplish simple military maneuvers. McPherson maps the complications of such issues for Lincoln by considering not only their strategic implications, but their political, economic, and psychological implications as well. In the case of General McClellan, there were numerous occasions in which Lincoln desired to remove him from his position as the general in command of the Army of the Potomac for his lack of desire to confront the enemy and his perpetual tendency to over exaggerate the quantifiable aspects of every situation. Yet Lincoln could not remove him because of the General’s deep-rooted relationship with his troops and their faithfulness to him. It became an internally tactical battle within the larger war that would provide the President many sleepless nights and fits of anger. Eventually Lincoln would remove McClellan and others of the same mold and replace them with cooperative Generals like Ulysses S. Grant who in turn acted on the President’s orders and won decisive battles that would contribute to the overall Union victory.

Among the most important decisions Lincoln would make as commander in chief were his interpretations of the president’s powers to bypass the checks and balances of the three-branch government. Lincoln stated, “as commander in chief of the army and navy, in time of war… I conceive that I may in an emergency do things on military grounds that cannot be done constitutionally by Congress.” Lincoln did just that during the war, he suspended the law of habeas corpus, created military courts, and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. These actions are pointed out by McPherson throughout the text and are credited with both pivotally changing the war to the Union’s favor and also becoming a hot topic of constitutional debate among historians and politicians alike.

The last chapters of the book chronicle the final stages of the war in which peace talks are initiated between Lincoln and Jefferson Davis the President of the Confederate States. McPherson finds the title for his book from these discussions, in which both parties reassured one another that nothing less of an absolute victory by either side would end the conflict. Lincoln declares, speaking of Davis, “He cannot voluntarily reaccept the Union; we cannot voluntarily yield it. Between him and us the issue is distinct, simple, and inflexible. It is an issue that can only be tried by war, and decided by victory.” Decided by victory it was and because of the military strategy, devoted leadership, and undying determination of Abraham Lincoln. McPherson’s “Tried by War” displays the author’s impressive command of his sources and his creative brilliance by captivating the reader from start to finish. This scholarly monograph sheds new light on the presidency of Abraham Lincoln and vividly displays his vital role in the outcome of the Civil War as the Union Army’s commander in chief.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Memory for Mexico

To me he was Brother Aurelio.

He couldn’t read and he couldn’t write.

He spoke Spanish with a true Chiapaneco-campero twist, a Mexican version of American Cajun. After three months in Palenque I, the American, was the one who had to translate for my Mexican-native companions.

Seven pesos for the ‘convi’(a VW hippie van) from Palenque to Pakalna. Ten minutes with stops. Fourteen pesos for the bus ride from Pakalna to the third stop before Catazaj√°, thirty minutes. We jumped a fence and started to walk a trail. We cut across fields and maneuvered through jungle, we steadily crept across a bridge with alligators below… luckily it hadn’t rained the night before and we were able to cross the river. Up ahead in the clearing we could see a small farm with a sheet metal roof and two hammocks draped across a small porch - just minutes under an hour walking. Brother Aurelio was already on his way out to meet us.

He took off his hat, “que pue Elde, ¿no-les comier-un lagarto pue?” I shook his hand and told him that because we were missionaries, the Lord had spared us from being eaten by the alligators. He smiled and invited us to have a drink of water before we set out to catch our meal.

Brother Aurelio grabbed his rifle and we were off to catch an iguana. We entered the thicket at high noon and scoured the sun bathed branches of skyscraper-like trees with our eyes. Una negra was the first to be spotted, on the low hanging branch a small tree about eye-level and only about ten yards away. I steadied a sling-shot loaded with a rock and let it rip. The rock whizzed over the top of the lazy beast and he did nothing. My companion then aimed and fired, and struck the iguana squarely above his exposed hind leg - the lizard only twitched. We then relentlessly opened fire until one of us struck him right in the neck. The stunned iguana dropped from the branch and fell confused onto the grassy forest floor. I fearlessly reached my hand down and scooped up the lizard and held him up for brother Aurelio too assess. “No ‘sta ueno. Demacia’o chico pa’ comer”. It was too small, so we let him go. Not long after, Brother Aurelio signaled for us to follow him, then he steadied his rifle and fired one shot. What seemed like at first to be a small iguana high up in the tree tops began to fall from the sky and increase in size. I got ready to run up and grab the lizard, but when I saw the monster land a knot suddenly appeared in my throat and my limbs wouldn’t respond. The orange iguanazo hit the ground and immediately stood up on its two hind legs and started to run for the river. It was not so small and suddenly I was not so brave, it looked like a velociraptor with a carnivorous mouth ready to feed - so I stepped out of the way and let it jump into the river. I sadly turned to my companion and we both shared expressions of disappointment, until Brother Aurelio told us to be patient and wait. He slowly walked downstream and carefully watched the water… a few minutes passed and we heard a splash a little further down. We ran over to find the iguana had passed away floated to the top. Brother Aurelio reached in the water and pulled our dinner out. We later had a wonderful meal, Iguana enchilado with rice and beans. We shared a scripture and prayed together, then my companion and I began the long journey back to Palenque.

As we left brother Aurelio took of his hat and yelled from the porch, “CUIDA’O LO LAGARTO! NOS VEMO’ ‘L-DOMINGO!” My companion and I just waved and kept walking. We made sure we stayed far away from the edge of the river and the alligators.

I am still amazed. Every Sunday, nearly four hours of travel time and eighty-four pesos in travel expenses didn’t stop Brother and Sister Aurelio. Every week bright and early they were waiting outside the small prayer house in Palenque to attend Church, partake of the Sacrament and pay their tithing. Their testimonies were strong, even when they were the only members of the branch to attend Church services lead, directed, and administered by two young missionaries. Their faith never wavered.

I will always remember how he spoke, such a humble man with a Chiapaneco draw and yet “it must needs be that the power of God must be with him” (2 Nephi 1:27). He was an inspiration and an example to me.

Yet he couldn’t read and he couldn’t write.

But I’ll never forget Brother Aurelio.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

An Essay for Reality TV

This is an essay I wrote in 2007... I hope you enjoy it - L

According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., "the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day (or 28 hours/week, or 2 months of nonstop TV-watching per year). In a 65-year life, that person will have spent 9 years glued to the tube”-

Needless to say, television with its many genres and endless program possibilities is a significant part of our lives. It facilitates a medium by which with a touch of a button we can satisfy our desires for entertainment, pleasure, shopping, commercial information, or for education in distinct subjects as vast as the sands of the sea, from auto-mechanic instructional programs to auto-biographical documentaries.

Now what if the average American only watched half of what is suggested by the A.C. Nielsen Co.? That is still about 2 hours or TV each day (or 14 hours/week, or 1 month of nonstop TV per year) and in a 65-year life, that person will still have spent 4 and ½ years fixated on the television... That is more time and attention devoted to your favorite programs on the television set than what is spent in the pursuit of most professional college degrees. Just as what we choose to study and pursue as a career will mold and shape our personal habits and behaviors, what we choose to watch on television ultimately will influence and affect our lives accordingly. One of the most popular and most rapidly expanding genres of television in recent years is that of ‘Reality TV’. Reality television has grown rapidly into a mega-industry that is reshaping television culture and pushing the limits of censorship in television production. Though many programs under the genre of reality TV are educational and very appropriate, some styles of programming in this genre produce a dangerously negative effect on its viewers and on society as a whole.

Andrew Postman a journalist for The Washington Post points out, “reality on TV (human behavior largely unaffected by awareness of a camera) and reality TV have almost nothing in common”. Just the name, ‘reality TV’, shouts declarations of curiosity and intrigue and would lead one to question the validity of Postman’s statement, but with a brief study of its history and evolution, one can easily conclude that the deeming of this particular genre as reality TV is indeed a misnomer and misleading in appearance.

Glancing back in time to the 1940s, a man dubbed by some as the ‘Grandfather’ of reality TV, Allen Funt began his ventures into uncharted territories with his 1947 radio show, Candid Microphone, which the very next year evolved into the hit television series, Candid Camera, a program that showcased the broadcasting of ordinary ‘every-day’ people and their reactions to unanticipated pranks. Not only did the labors and the vision of Allen Funt pave the way for a whole new style of entertainment to spawn and thrive in the television industry, but the development of new and more advanced media technology helped to cultivate this mega-industry in embryo. “Much of reality TV in the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as Cops, and America’s Funniest Home Videos, depended on the availability and portability of handheld video cameras. The most recent wave of reality programs has relied on small microphones and hidden cameras to capture private moments such as those that occur on Big Brother and The Real World”.

So with the advancement of technology and the passing of time, the production means and the very definition of reality TV have changed and evolved into a new creature. This new creature straying further and farther away from Allen Funt’s ‘candid’ moments or in the words of Andrew Postman, further away from “human behavior largely unaffected by [the] awareness of a camera”. It has developed into a genre of shows like the more commonly known Survivor or Big Brother series, and MTV’s The Real World, The Bachelor, and I Love New York!, all of which generally attract younger audiences and: frequently portray a modified and highly influenced form of reality, with participants put in exotic locations or abnormal situations, sometimes coached to act in certain ways by off-screen handlers, and with events on screen sometimes manipulated through editing and other post-production techniques.

So now Andrew Postman’s declaration begins to make sense, and he continues, “to be fair, reality TV doesn’t claim to be about everyday life, instead, its pitched as the pursuit of dreams (money, love, stardom, Darwinian appointment)”. Even those who are advocates of reality TV admit its deceptive and distorted name by defining it as “an unabashedly commercial genre united less by aesthetic rules or certainties than by the fusion of popular entertainment with a self-conscious claim to the discourse of the real”. So reality TV is not really real? In some program styles of the genre it most certainly is not:

The producers of reality television, like their counterparts on the confessional shows, do not trust the natural revelation of love interest, character development or our behavior as social animals. Instead, they set oppressive parameters, establish rules of behavior, insert elements of conflict and cooperation, even starve the castaways on their island, called Pulau Tiga. They force the interactivity of their guinea pigs. They produce reality.

Anyone who knows they are being filmed by a camera and will be seen before audiences of thousands and even millions is going to behave a little differently than they normally or ‘ordinarily’ would otherwise. So why is this self-proclaimed reality TV so popular?

The popularity of reality TV programs is undisputable, with programs such as American Idol which “has topped the ratings three consecutive years (2004-05, 2005-06, and 2006-07) and Survivor led the ratings in 2001-02”. Is it the exposure of “the tediously quotidian [that] threatens the sanctity of privacy? Is it the clash between cooperation and competition…Is it old-fashioned voyeurism…or is there a darker reason—a sadistic glee in watching unsympathetic people humiliated on screen?”. Though all of these and maybe even more reasons may be the cement that glues audiences to the reality TV screen, the real reason for the popularity and the explosion of this dominating genre lies within the very industry that this infection thrives in.

As one analyst writes, “the driving force behind this programming fad comes down to dollars and cents. With salaries of top TV actors topping $1 million per episode, developing new scripted series can be a risky proposition. Reality television series have low production costs and no talent to pay other than the show’s host”. With numbers like this and advertising sponsors paving over any other ‘would-be’ financial obstacles, reality programs are virtually free to produce and therefore have become the recent focus of every major television production company. So it is no wonder that “at least 20% of the prime time schedule during the [2003] February sweeps period was composed of reality programming. From Extreme Makeover to Average Joe to The Swan to The Apprentice, it’s difficult these days to turn on the television and not end up seeing a reality show”. With statistics like that, the popularity factor doesn’t seem quite as impressive. But something that is impressive is how far these reality TV shows have pushed the limits of television censorship and have endangered society in their quest for higher ratings and increased profits.

With producer competing against producer in order to score the next ingenious and innovative reality TV show, all barriers of morality and constructive principles have been blatantly penetrated and continue to be repeatedly and deliberately disregarded. Even in the titles of some shows such as, Temptation Island, and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, moral principles are suggested to be non-existent. Not to mention in the content of said shows we find situations where couples are encouraged to participate in immoral and unfaithful activity or be “voted-off” the island or kicked off the show.

We find entertainment in watching shows like The Bachelor/ette and I Love New York! or A Shot with Tila Tequila, where contestants are selected based purely on physical and sexual attraction. They are then filmed participating in intimate overnight dates (creating adulterous scenarios) where partial nudity and sexually charged language and situations are graphically broadcasted nationwide on prime-time television for all, young and old to see and emulate. “In the 19th century, an exposed foot or ankle constituted nudity”, oh how far we have come, and reality TV is only pushing the envelope to the next level. Not only is reality TV promoting sexually explicit behavior, but it is in the process of eliminating the explicit language barrier as well. “True, the f-word is always bleeped out, but the ‘you’ or ‘it’ that follows allows us to recognize it instantly".

Never before has so much profanity and foul language been aired on television, no not until the rise of this empire, but then again that’s not all, because never before has so much violence and aggression been allowed to be aired on television until now as well: Not including the latest statistics from the “reality TV” explosion, children will be subjected to and affected by over 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of violence by the seventh grade, according to a study by the American Psychological Association. A Washington Post article suggest that evidence from over 3,000 research studies, spanning three decades, shows that the violence on television influences the attitudes and behavior of children who watch it.

This kind of exposure to violence, sexual promiscuity, profanity, and socially degrading and humiliating activity can have horrible and dangerously destructive effects on those who immerse themselves in it by constantly watching it. Psychologists have stated that, “people who watch more violent television tend to believe that the world is a more dangerous and threatening place than those who watch less television”.

Desensitization to these socially destructive principles is also an effect of the exposure that reality TV brings into homes. Seeing so much of these violent acts, or the sexual or degrading content, or hearing the profane language on a constant and regular basis in our homes from our television sets, causes viewers to develop a tolerance to it and be less horrified by it in real life. A psychologist by the name of Dr. Leonard Eron has said, “the only people who dispute the connection between smoking and cancer are people in the tobacco industry. And the only people who dispute the television and violence connection are people in the entertainment industry…television violence affects [people] of all ages, of both genders, at all socio-economic levels and all levels of intelligence”.

It is easy to see how violence on the reality TV screen can be more influential than a scripted sitcom or movie, when it is taken into account that the audience is aware that a certain act of violence or utterance of profanity is committed by an ordinary person in place of an actor, and they in turn are more liable to think themselves as well able and capable to do and say the same things.

This is a serious issue that addresses society, families, and individuals alike. The promotion of these destructive principles can only bring about a regression in culture and ethics as we transform women and men into objects of sexual pleasure, and neighbors and coworkers into objects of humiliation or outlets of aggression and violence. Audiences will always be held captive and fascinated by exposed and illuminated dark places once considered prohibited, just as children will always reach out to a hot stove even after being warned. It all boils down to the greed and manipulative tactics of the reality TV producers of these styles of programming, constantly bringing the public bar of standards lower and lower facilitating their desires to riches and fame.

Now it is understood that not all programs in the genre of reality television are repulsive and negatively affecting society, but the very easily discernable programs that do produce a negative effect on society are growing in numbers and power in popularity. The more viewers there are of these shows, the more victims there are of the vicious cycle explained so very eloquently by the great poet Alexander Pope in this verse:

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,

As to be hated needs but to be seen;

Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,

We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

Maybe someday the world may stand up against immorality and speak out against it in all of its forms, and look to teach and cultivate constructive and productive principles and values in its homes and families, promoting unity and commitment, education and eloquence, interdependence as the ultimate goal in place of independence, honesty and integrity, and so on. Maybe the world may not immediately be able to influence the programming styles of television stations, but it certainly is immediately capable of placing the TV controller down and picking up a good book, or a ball and a glove, or a child and a bed-time story.