Space Invaders

Garlic mustard.Our little castle finds itself under siege once again:

Alliaria petiolata is an aggressive invader of wooded areas throughout the eastern and middle United States. A high shade tolerance allows this plant to invade high quality, mature woodlands, where it can form dense stands. These stands not only shade out native understory flora but also produce allelopathic compounds that inhibit seed germination of other species. Alliaria petiolata is native to Europe and was first introduced during the 1800s for medicinal and culinary purposes.

Though a member of the mustard family, when crushed or rubbed the leaves of A. petiolata generate a garlic scent — hence its more common name, garlic mustard. Apparently its leaves make a tasty pesto, a recipe I’m willing to try since I have so much of it growing on the edge of our woods.

I’m skeptical of the whole concept of invasive species; what some may see as imperialism by the exotic, I see as natural selection. A species using what it’s got to get what it wants is the engine of evolution. The first mudskipper who crawled onto land was an invader; so too are the first seeds to germinate in the black sands of a new volcanic island. Concern about invasive species here in the U.S. is less about conservationism and more about restoring it to an imagined pre-Columbian ideal. We know that American Indians altered the environment to suit them, drastically changing the Western Hemisphere as they found it, and yet we fantasize about furbishing the land to how it appeared in 1491.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If we buy an old house, we may admire aspects or details from an older period (like, say, the original hardwood floors) and strip away modern additions that obscure them (wall-to-wall carpeting). But we’re conscious of making those choices and acknowledging those preferences. When we label a species as invasive, we intend it pejoratively. We mean that we simply don’t like them. The Earth is a garden, a place where we discriminate between species: we water the elephants and weed the smallpox. What’s so wrong with admitting that to ourselves?

For a few short hours in this lifetime, our acre is my garden — and I don’t like garlic mustard. The stuff spreads like a brush fire and seems headed straight for our lawn; thus I’ve started the four-to-five year process of eliminating it from our yard. It’s notable that some studies showed that outbreaks of garlic mustard didn’t damage species diversity, so the stuff is hardly kudzu. But it’s easily recognizable with its serrated heart-shaped leaves and white cruciform flowers and pulls easily, especially after a rainstorm. I think Connecticut has already lost the battle — or at least is in the process of evolving — because I see it everywhere I go, and who’s going to yank it from public land or along the roadsides and in the abandoned lots? No one. But I mutter a prayer to Saint Jude and pull it anyway.

Short News, Literary Pretensions Edition

The Enlightenment or GTFO. At Tablet Magazine, Liel Leibovitz comments on the PEN American Center shenanigans but might as well be talking about certain parties angry at this year’s Hugo nominations or those advocating avoidance of straight white male writers:

Can you imagine Balzac arguing that a novelist mustn’t scrutinize the poor and the rich alike, as the poor—poor souls—are too underprivileged to pass through literature’s relentless magnifying glass? Or the Bard abandoning Othello lest someone walk away convinced that all Moorish generals were murderous thugs? That would be—to borrow a phrase associated with Wallace Shawn, another of the letter’s signatories—inconceivable. Writers, real ones, grasp for as much of humanity as they can hold in their embrace. Their motto is the one forged by the Roman playwright Terrence millennia ago: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” I am a human being; nothing human is alien to me.

To the dolts who declined to partake in the PEN gala, Terrence’s words are as much a lifeless relic as the language in which he wrote. They, and the hordes of others in their circles, ask of a work of fiction not whether it is a thing of truth and beauty but where it might fall on a spectrum of insensitivities, real or imagined, and just how ill-at-ease it might make some readers feel. In Whitman they seek only affirmation of his homosexuality, in Woolf something to say about gender and power. They see no splendor in the leaves of grass, nor the beauty of the pale footfall of the light emanating from the Lighthouse. They seek nothing but confirmation of their preconceived notions, narrow and hard.

It’s bad enough the PEN refuseniks seem so intent in slandering the dead for being what they were not or rationalize some speech as more equal than others with greater contortionism than Cirque du Soleil acrobats. What’s worse is their relativist hand-wringing tacitly justifying the Charlie Hebdo massacre. As Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker said, “The whole end of liberal civilization is to substitute the criticism of ideas for assaults on people.” But I’m sure these days advocating the superiority of Enlightenment principles is punching down.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There’s a lot to love in this WSJ interview with the Nigerian author, from her criticism of American grocery stores to her observation that “When we talk about the developing world, there’s this idea that everybody should be fighting for the poor” (why is it we so often imagine Africans as existing solely in two groups — either impoverished shack dwellers or jungle rebels — and never consider the possibility of an African middle class?). But what struck me most was this:

She does, however, experience bouts of depression, “the crazy writer illness” that she thinks is common in her field. “There’s something comforting about that, because you feel you’re not alone,” she says.

Some days she writes for 12 hours straight; other days she can’t bring herself to write at all.

“I wish I could write every day, but I don’t,” she says. “When it goes well, I ignore things like family and hygiene, but other days, when it’s not going well, I read the books I love to remind myself of how beautiful and essential and nurturing words can be, and I hope that doing that will bring my own words back.”

Adichie seems like such a — well, like such a real writer.

A Shout-out Over Innsmouth

Innsmouth Olde AleNarragansett Beer has released the second offering in their Lovecraft Series of craft beers, Innsmouth Olde Ale.

When I first read it, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” was not among my favorite H.P. Lovecraft stories; I was drawn to more cosmic works like “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Shadow Out of Time.” But “Innsmouth” has grown on me over the years, in part because I can better appreciate its sophistication and in part because technology has evolved to the point where the story is as much prescience as fantasy horror. Ken Hite’s discussion of Robert M. Price’s essay prefacing The Innsmouth Cycle made me realize the story is more than just a guy being chased by a bunch of inbred townies:

Among other things, Price makes the point that Obed Marsh is the prophet of a Cargo Cult, one which implicitly casts Lovecraft’s New England as a primitive backwater. … Lovecraft’s story brilliantly inverts the colonialist understanding of the Cargo Cult by demonstrating that the Other (the non-white, the “Kanak,” the foreign) is the far more sophisticated myth, one with a better claim both on the past and the future than white Massachusetts Protestant Christianity.

If you haven’t read the story, then spoilers crawlin’ an’ bleatin’ an’ barkin’ an’ hoppin’ after the jump.

Continue reading

SCOTUS to Cops: Time to Face the Music

On Monday, the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal (pdf) filed by police officers who participated in the 2008 raid on the Easton, Connecticut home of Ronald Terebesi, Jr.

If you recall, the SWERT tactical team composed of officers from six neighboring towns raided Terebesi’s house in response to a tip from an exotic dancer who said two men were smoking crack cocaine in Terebesi’s living room. The raid — which involved all the usual hallmarks: flashbangs, battering down the front door, setting the house on fire — ended with cops shooting and killing Terebesi’s unarmed friend Gonzalo Guizan. Paraphernalia and less than a tenth of an ounce of a suspicious substance was recovered from the house. Terebesi completed a brief drug program and was never charged with any crimes.

Both Terebesi and Guizan’s estate filed civil suits against five of the towns (Westport being the outlier) and the individual officers involved. The Guizan family settled with the towns for $3.5 million. In Terebesi’s case, the cops argued that their acting in their official capacities as town employees granted them qualified immunity and requested summary judgment. Both the District Court and the US Court of the Appeals for the Second District disagreed, and now SCOTUS has tacitly done so too.

The case is headed to trial in New Haven and currently assigned to Judge Janet Bond Arterton, the same District Court judge who wrote the scathing decision denying the officers’ qualified immunity in the first place:

[Monroe police sergeant Jay] Torreso maintains that he is entitled to qualified immunity because his personal conduct was objectively reasonable. However, Torreso is alleged to have been personally involved in what is plausibly described as an objectively unreasonable raid, given the minimal threat posed, the extreme force used, and the circumstances surrounding his no-knock entry. … Therefore, he has not shown that he is entitled to qualified immunity at this stage.

Arterton, who has a reputation for dropping the hammer, has presided over a number of high-profile cases; she recently sentenced former governor John Rowland to 30 months for campaign fraud and conspiracy. And I’m sure the judge will turn a fond eye upon the testimony of William Ruscoe, one of the SWERT cops named in the suit, who’s currently serving time for raping a teenager.

Terebesi’s lawyer, Gary Mastronardi, believes the case will go to court this year. “Because of the age of the case, the judge will be riding roughshod over the lawyers to move this quickly,” he said.

As for his client’s chances, Mastronardi said, “Both rulings in the Second Circuit and the Supreme Court were expected. Evidence is the evidence and they can’t make the evidence disappear.”

Short News, Altering the Past Edition

Danaus plexippus

Down the Memory Hole. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, the only proper response for historians toward Hillary Clinton is a loathing both total and complete. The Clintons’ contempt for government transparency and the work of anyone who has ever stepped foot in an archives shouldn’t have come as a surprise even before she admitted using a personal server for her emails as Secretary of State or her lawyer’s confession that — surprise, surprise — said server was later wiped clean. Some of us have memories long enough to remember Sandy Berger’s plea bargain (and $50,000 fine) for stealing and destroying documents from the National Archives that dated to the final years of Bill Clinton’s administration — an action I’m sure Berger did at his own instigation, right?

No Gods or Kings, Only Matzo. Unlike BioShock Infinite, which was a slice of awesome no matter which way the cake was cut, the first two BioShocks were mediocre games buoyed by their amazing environmental graphics and a superb backstory. Creator Ken Levine revealed in a recent interview how the Jewish heritage of a number of BioShock characters — a Soviet refugee, a Holocaust survivor, New York doctors and artists — was integral to driving the storyline. To me it’s a great example of weaving together 20th-century history and experience to develop a very authentic alt-hist world.

Top photo by Thomas Bresson CC BY.

JAR Annual 2015 Available for Pre-Order

JAR2015_300x450The 2015 edition of the Journal of the American Revolution is now available for pre-order.

Every year, Westholme Publishing releases a reprint collection of essays that first appeared on the Journal website. This year’s volume includes my essay about the whaleboat raiding that occurred on Long Island Sound, where Patriots and Loyalists alike gave as good as they got:

“[T]wo boates crossed on the fourteenth instant,” wrote Caleb Brewster to New York governor George Clinton in the summer of 1781. “[They] went up about twelve at night to the houses of Capt. Ebenezer Miller and Andrew Miller, demanded entrance which was granted, as soon as the door was opened they demanded his arms which he gave up; his son hearing a noise below stairs got up out of bed shoved up the chamber windo. One of the party without ever speaking to him, shot him dead in the windo …”

During the Revolution, American Patriots employed a number of tactics to overcome their extreme disadvantage in the face of the overwhelming power of the British navy: a Continental navy, state navies, and privateers (some with Continental commissions and others commissioned by states). The whaleboat raiders — or “armed boats,” as they were called at the time — were a low subclass of the state-commissioned privateers, and as I point out in my essay, it’s questionable whether many of the raiders had commissions at all. In the chaos of war, the only equipment you needed to go robbing and pillaging on the opposite shore was a boat and some buddies, and if New England in 1776 was anything like New England in 2015 where every third house has a tarp-covered boat in its driveway, then this was not a high benchmark to reach. It probably attracted some men of dubious character.

The Annual Volume 2015 also includes essays from such notables as J.L. Bell, Benjamin Huggins, and JAR editor Hugh T. Harrington. Out in May, it makes a great Father’s Day gift!