Mr. Keuner on whether a God exists

This is one of the “Tales of Mr. Keuner” («Geschichten vom Herrn Keuner») from the 1953 edition of Bertolt Brecht’s Calendar Stories («Kalendar Geschichten»). The text follows my translation:

Someone asked Mr K. whether there is a God. Mr. K. said: “I recommend that you consider whether your conduct would change depending on the answer to that question. If it wouldn’t, then we can drop the whole matter. If it would change, then I can help you at least this much. I say that you have already decided: You need a God.

Original text (from edition published by Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH, Hamburg, 1953):

Die Frage, ob es einen Gott gibt

Einer fragte Herrn K., ob es einen Gott gäbe. Herr K. sagte: «Ich rate dir, nachzudenken, ob dein Verhalten je nach der Antwort auf diese Frage sich ändern würde. Würde es sich nicht ändern, dann können wir die Frage fallenlassen. Würde es sich ändern, dann kann ich dir wenigstens noch so weit behilflich sein, daß ich dir sage, du hast dich schon entschieden: Du brauchst einen Gott.»

There are no bad cops

It has become us against them from the American cop’s point of view. Not “service”; not “community”; not “honor.” It is an occupation where they are allowed to wield fatal force, and we have to stay out of their way.

Is it a question of race? Without a doubt. But that’s not all.

Is it class? Certainly. American cops have become the enforcers of a proto-fascist/neoliberal mentality in this country directed at the lumpen poor and working class. But that’s not all.

American cops have the belief that no amount of force, for any reason, should cause a cop to face the “justice” system.

I say this not simply because the police “union” of Ferguson has shown itself so intoxicated that it suggests it could enforce a boycott of the NFL. Nor do I need to canvas all the absurd incidents of police violence in this country.

Let me give you an example, entirely divorced of class, violence, second-guessing, etc.

Last February an incident occurred near Dallas involving a policeman. Sgt. Nick Pitofsky was an officer of the Crandall, Texas police department. He was, like many policeman, a gun nut. He even posted the review of a rifle he planned to give to his wife for her protection on YouTube. That video has been removed, in light of what happened a week later, but you can see a portion of it here.

The next record we have of him is that he used that gun to kill his wife and himself in their home.

Sgt. Pitofsky, one of Crandall, Texas's finest, showing what a Mossberg 500 shotgun can do. Five days later he again demonstrated its capacity. (Screencap from via New York Daily News.)

Sgt. Pitofsky, one of Crandall, Texas’s finest, showing what a Mossberg 500 shotgun can do. Five days later he again demonstrated its capacity. (Screencap from via New York Daily News.)

Incidentally, his wife of three years, Vanessa, worked to raise money for policemen injured in the line of duty.

'Vanessa Pitofsky and the Crandall police office, her husband, who  kllled her in cold blood before committing suicide. (From via

‘Vanessa Pitofsky and the Crandall police officer, her husband, who kllled her in cold blood before committing suicide. (From via

I bring this up, not to paint with a broad brush an entire profession just because one of its members was a cold-blooded murderer. One who killed, not in the line of duty, but because he decided to. And was too much of a coward to accept the consequences for it.

No, I bring this up to show you what the reaction of the Crandall Police Department was to this heinous crime. I set forth its press release in full:

“It is with a heavy heart we regret to inform the public that Nick Pitofsky and his wife, Vanessa, were found deceased in their Dallas apartment on 2/26 by the Dallas Police Department. Dallas PD is investigating the incident as a possible murder-suicide. No other information has been confirmed by DPD at this time. Nick Pitofsky was a Patrol Sergeant for the Crandall Police Department and has been employed with the city for two years. Nick was well respected by his peers and will be deeply missed by the city and department as a whole. Nick was an energetic and jovial person who got along with everyone. Nick was an extremely dedicated Police Officer for the City of Crandall and its citizens. Sergeant Nick Pitofsky will be deeply missed by his fellow Officers. The Crandall Police Department would also like to send our condolences to the family of both Nick and Vanessa Pitofsky.”

I have highlighted the part that ought to give a rational person pause. This is the law enforcement agency that hired him. They are charged with preventing or at least apprehending felons of the sort that Sgt.Pitofsky proved himself to be. But the police department instead gives him an encomium. He is, according to them, the greatest guy that ever committed cold-blooded murder on an innocent, defenseless loved one, who ever existed.

Remember this when you read how police are protected after deadly force. They simply don’t recognize, ever, that one of their own can possibly be one of the people they are charged with protecting us from. That the cavalier use of deadly force, under any circumstance, is a criminal act, if a police officer is the actor. It is a professional courtesy: One murder (at least) gets you a mulligan. The fact that they all have lockers together means that each one of them is theirs and they will protect him. Even when it is clear as day that he is a criminal.

If I am wrong in this portrait, please give me an example when police have voluntarily found out and apprehended a criminal in their midst.

The Unpunished Crimes of John Chivington

It will not take long for the attentive reader to discover parallels between events this week and an event that took place 150 years ago today. Here’s the story.

At sunrise on Tuesday, November 29, 1864, John S. Smith, special Indian agent and interpreter was awakened by Indians who ran into his camp and told that U.S. soldiers were approaching their village. Black Kettle, chief of the Cheyenne band lodging there, had already taken precautions. He raised the U.S. flag that he had been presented by Colonel A.B. Greenwood years before and tied under it a small white flag, as he had been instructed to do to show that his villagers were not hostile to American troops. Smith left his camp to advise the troops (thinking them unfamiliar with the area) that the Indians were friendly.

He discovered troops under Lieutenant Luther Wilson, a battalion of the 1st Colorado cavalry from Fort Lyon. Since Smith had been sent to the Indian encampment by U.S. Indian Agent Major S.G. Colley with the express permission of Major Scott J. Anthony, commander of Fort Lyon, and since he was known by the troops, Smith had every reason to believe he would be able to discuss the matter with them. Instead, they began to fire on him. He ran back to his camp.

The U.S. troops swept through the camp. Almost all the male Indians escaped, some on horseback. But the troops did not follow. Instead they were engaged in mopping up operations around camp.

John Milton Chivington. (Denver Public Library Western History/Genealogy Dept.)

John Milton Chivington. (Denver Public Library Western History/Genealogy Dept.)

Smith emerged once again from his camp, and Colonel John Chivington, the commander of the attack recognized him and called him to come forward. Smith ran as fast as he could, and Chivington had him get on the other side of him, away from the troops. There was no spare horse, so Lieutenant Baldwin had him hold on to the caisson. Smith thus followed the Major and Lieutenant viewing what must have been a surreal scene. Soldiers were firing on small groups of Indians, mostly women and children, almost none of which had weapons.

Major Anthony testifying before a joint congressional committee on the matter in March, tried, for obvious reasons, to put a good face on this matter, but it was difficult for him; he was repeatedly caught in contradictions. He said he had only seen one attempt by a soldier to mutilate a corpse. One soldier scalped a woman next to Chivington. But perhaps, Anderson said, she had not been scalped; maybe her head was grazed by a bullet. He did volunteer that a squaw who had been mortally wounded drew her babies to her and cut their throats. “That was not done by our men,” Anderson asserted. He did recall another incident:

There was one little child, probably three years old, just big enough to walk through the sand. The Indians had gone ahead, and this little child was behind following after them. The little fellow was perfectly naked, traveling on the sand. I saw one man get off his horse, a distance of about seventy-five yards, and draw his rifle and fire—he missed the child, another man came up and said, “Let me try the son of a bitch; I can hit him.” He got down off his horse, kneeled down and fired at the little child, but missed him. And third man came up and made a similar remark, and fired, and the little fellow dropped.

If Major Anderson did not see any mutilations, other soldiers did. Affidavits sent to Congress from Denver detailed “dead bodies of women and children were horribly mutilated,” said Private David Louderback of the 1st Colorado cavalry. Lieutenant James D. Cannan of the 1st New Mexico volunteer infantry said he heard “of one instance of a child a few months old being thrown in a feed-box of a wagon, and after being carried some distance, left on the ground to perish. I also heard of numerous instances in which men had cut out the private parts of females, and stretched them over the saddle-bows, and wore them over their hats, while riding in the ranks.”

Painting by Robert Lindneaux (1871-1970) of surprise attack by troops under Major John Chivington on November 29, 1864 at the Big Bend on Sand Creek. (Reproduction NPS. Colorado History.)

Painting by Robert Lindneaux (1871-1970) of surprise attack by troops under Major John Chivington on November 29, 1864 at the Big Bend on Sand Creek. (Reproduction NPS. Colorado History.)

Smith was forced to see the battlefield with Chivington but all he would say was that a large majority of the dead bodies were of women and children, “all of whose bodies had been mutilated in the most horrible manner.” Chivington wanted him to view the old men to see if he could identify any chiefs. Smith couldn’t tell if a body was of Black Kettle; it was so mutilated he couldn’t tell one way or the other. But that was not the end of the trauma for Smith.  He testified:

I had a half-breed son there, who gave himself up. He started at the time the Indians fled; being a half-breed he had but little hope of being spared, and seeing them fire at me, he ran away with the Indians for the distance of about a mile. During the fight up there he walked back to my camp and went into the lodge. It was surrounded by soldiers at the time. He came in quietly and sat down; he remained there that day, that night, and the next day in the afternoon; about four o’clock in the evening, as I was sitting inside the camp, a soldier came up outside of the lodge and called me by name. I got up and went to have; he took me by the arm and walked towards Colonel Chivington’s camp, which was about sixty yards from my camp. Said he, “I am sorry to tell you, but they are going to kill your son Jack.” I knew the feeling towards the whole camp of Indians, and that there was no use to make any resistance. I said, “I can’t help it.” I then walked on towards where Colonel Chivington was standing by his camp-fire; when I had got within a few feet of him I heard a gun fired, and saw a crowd run to my lodge, and they told me that Jack was dead.

Anthony testified that he told Chivington before the execution that Jack Smith was not only friendly but could provide useful intelligence against the hostile Indians (he had in the past):

Colonel Chivington replied, “I have given my instructions; have told my men not take any prisoners. I have no further instructions to give.” I replied to him that he could make that man very useful, and I thought that perhaps he had better give the men to understand that he did not want him killed. The colonel replied again, “I said at the start that I did not want any prisoners taken, and I have no further instructions to give.”

The news of the massacre spread East and ignited a firestorm. The intelligence was not only that Chivington had committed heinous crimes, but also that the entire surprise attack had been undertaken against Indians under U.S. Army protection.

And the latter part, which makes the entire proceeding inconceivable, was not only true but Chivington took part in the meeting during which that protection was arranged. But he was part of the faction in the Territory that held that all Indians were responsible for depredations and at the time no one was in a mood to make fine distinctions.

The mountains around Denver had gold, and the area was undergoing a similar rush that had taken place in California a decade and a half previously. But the gold here could not be panned for. It required mining equipment, and hence Eastern capital. Any interruption in operations would make capital more expensive, if not dry it up altogether.

The Cheyenne, Arapahoes and several other nations had a treaty with the United States since 1851 granting most of what is now eastern Colorado and parts of surrounding states. The gold rush that began in 1858 saw easterners streaming through the Indian territory with many settling on it. In 1861 S.B. Greenwood was able to negotiate with the Arapahoes and the southern portion of the Cheyenne to accept a drastically reduced territory. The northern Cheyenne balked. The year 1864 was particularly bad, when the “Dog Soldiers,” as the non-settling Cheyenne were called, began depredations on the settlers around Denver. Beginning in June regular reports were spread of settlers attacked, sometimes killed. More worrisome to the inhabitants of Denver was the interruption of mail and other supply trains. By September many in Denver were beginning to fear mass starvation, especially if the Indian prevented the fall harvest.

Captain S.M. Robbins, Chief of Chivington’s calvary, but who was not present during the attack, tried to offer one word of exculpation to Congress on behalf of Chivington:

For a year and a half past there has been a state of war existing between the Indians and the whites, as far as the opinion of the Indians were concerned; whether by the authority of the head chiefs or not we cannot tell. At all events, the interruption of communication on the Arkansas route and on the Platte route raised the price of everything consumed by the people out here. And the people emphatically demanded that something should be done. The point I wish to make is, that perhaps Colonel Chivington might have been forced into this by the sentiment of the people.

Question [By Representative Daniel Wheelwright Gooch]. Would the sentiment of the people lead a man to attack Indians who were known to be friendly, and who were known to be trying to avert hostilities?

Answer. I should say it would. They wanted some Indians killed; whether friendly or not they did not stop to inquire.

The people demanded a hero or a butcher, it didn’t matter which. Chivington was uniquely willing to give them what they wanted.

Chivington had come from Ohio, near Cincinnati, born in 1821. Married at 18, he had three children in short order, whom he supported as an apprentice carpenter. At 21 he was “born again” at a religious revival and studied to become a preacher. Two years later he was in the ministry of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Ohio. He travelled about as an “itinerant” in Illinois, Missouri and Kansas, serving in the last place as a missionary to the Wyandot Indians. When Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, he became a warm abolitionist and soon Republican. He attempted to turn the slave-state of Missouri Republican from his pulpit, where, it was said, he kept revolvers. He moved to Omaha where he rose in the ranks of the church and joined the Masons. In 1860 he named presiding elder of the M.E.C. church in Denver, at a time when the city was enjoying the first blush of the gold boom.

With the Southern rebellion turning into hot war, Chivington saw his ambition and abolition sentiments merge into a new idée fixe: military and ultimately political preferment through military valor. He was offered a commission as military chaplain, but he made it clear he meant to fight. In 1861 he was commissioned a major in the 1st Colorado Regiment. This required him to engage in recruiting to fill his battalion. He did this while continuing to preach. Chivington’s massive frame and bold talk attracted men to him. But his sharp elbows made enemies with long memories of his superiors and peers.

Chivington’s commanding officer Colonel John P. Slough immediately took a dislike to him over his drilling practices. On their way to their first engagement (to prevent an attack in New Mexico by Confederate General H.H. Sibley), Slough called for Chivington’s court-martial, labelling him a “crazy preacher who thinks he is Napoleon Bonaparte.” But military necessity soon intervened. Chivington found himself in a shooting war, and he came to life. Riding around in a hail of bullets with a revolver in each hand and one under each arm, Chivington cut the dashing figure, avoided being shot and earned the respect of his men. In Apache Canyon, Slough directed Chivington to flank the enemy’s camp at the end of the canyon. On the way Chivington fell on the Confederate’s supply train, consisting of 60 wagons. Chivington destroyed the supplies and a 6-pounder gun and took 15 prisoners including two officers.

That event changed Slough’s opinion. When Slough resigned (due to lack of activity) in April 1862, Chivington’s men wrote an ardent petition that Chivington be appointed in his place. Chivington was appointed colonel, much to the disappointment of Slough’s next in command, Lt. Col. Samuel F. Tappan, a man who would dog Chivington the rest of his life.

Governor John Evans. (Colorado State Archives.)

Governor John Evans. (Colorado State Archives.)

The colonelcy was not Chivington’s final ambition, however. He was looking for a brigadier generalship as a stepping stone for a political career. He twice applied, the first time traveling to Washington to press his case to Secretary of War Edward Stanton himself. Chivington was warmly endorsed by the governor of the Colorado Territory, John Evans, who would become his political ally in the coming crisis. Slough even recommended him. Then a curious thing happened. Slough wrote to Stanton withdrawing his recommendation and made a stunning charge:

Judge Hall late Chief Justice of Colorado has just informed me that when I was Colonel of the Regiment and Chivington Major, he and others conspired for my assassination and that the attempt was made when en route to New Mexico in February and March 1862. The object was to secure the Colonelcy to Chivington who was recognized as a better military man than the Lt. Col. and the promotion of the other conspirators. . . . The base attempt upon my life was frustrated by Providence.

Nothing came of the charge, but then again Chivington was not promoted. And he left the army.

Recruiting poster for Chivington's 100-day men.

Recruiting poster for Chivington’s 100-day men.

But he was not done. Possibly with the backing of Governor Evans in 1864 he was appointed to command the Third Colorado Calvary, made up of hundred day men. It was a short time-table to deal with what was regarded as wide-spread Indian threats, and Colonel Chivington was a man with a short fuse. He avowed his purpose: “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! … I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.”

Chivington and Evans were on the total-extermination side of the debate. But there were cooler heads (although not bleeding hearts), especially in the professional army). On September 4, 1864, Major Edward W. Wynkoop, commanding at Fort Lyon, received from three Cheyenne men approaching the fort a letter, written by a “half-bred” in the Cheyenne camp (possibly Jack Smith?) on behalf of Black Kettle and other Cheyenne and Arapahoe chiefs. The letter said the Indians desired peace and they had in their possession white women and children who they were willing to turn over if they could achieve peace terms.

Major E.W. Wyncoop (Photographer and date unknown.)

Major E.W. Wynkoop (Photographer and date unknown.)

Wynkoop, desiring to obtain the release of the hostages, took 120 men and rendezvoused with the Indians, even though they claimed thy had a congregation of two thousand. The assemblage turned out to be mostly old men, women and children. Many men were following thee buffalo, and those hostile inclined had left to join the Dog Soldiers. The old chiefs were desperate for peace for their people, who couldn’t fight in any event. Wynkoop was able to obtain the release of the four hostages simply on the promise of attempting to obtain some sort of peace for them. He felt confident that he could at least extend the protection of the U.S. Army over them in light of the fact that Governor Evans had on August 11 issued a proclamation advising friendly Indians to repair to Fort Lyon, Fort Larned, Fort Laramie or Camp Collins “for safety and protection” while at the same time authorizing “all citizens of Colorado, either individually or in such parties as they may organize, to go in pursuit of all hostile Indians … to kill and destroy, as enemies of the country, where they may be found, all such hostile Indians.” The bloody proclamation had one (and only one) caveat: “scrupulously avoiding those who have responded to my said call in rendezvous at the points indicated …”

Photograph of the delegation of chiefs meeting in Denver in September 1864. Black Kettle is shown second from the left in the bottom row.(National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Museum Support Center, Suitland, Maryland.)

Photograph of the delegation of chiefs meeting in Denver in September 1864. Black Kettle is shown second from the left in the bottom row. (National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Museum Support Center, Suitland, Maryland.)

Wynkoop arranged for a delegation of the friendly Cheyenne and Arapahoe chiefs to meet in Denver with Governor Evans, the acting superintendent of Indian affairs for the district. The meeting took place on September 28, 1864. Colonel Chivington was present. The Indians pressed their desire for peace, pointing out they took great risks in coming to Denver for the meeting. Despite his earlier call for the Indians to seek protection, however, Governor Evans tried to wash his hands of the matter. He said they would have to treat with the military for any protection and turned the matter over to Chivington. The colonel told the meeting that he would leave it to Wynkoop and that whatever the major arranged, he would honor. On return to Fort Lyon, Wynkoop invited the chiefs to bring in their families. Two weeks later they all arrived at the fort. Wynkoop began issuing them provisions.

Meanwhile, in Denver political intrigue by the hardliners arranged to have Wynkoop removed from Fort Lyon. He was replaced by Major Scott J. Anthony.

Anthony was above all a cautious man. At least, he was cautious as it concerned his own interests. He had no real fixed view on how to resolve the Indian problems. He was, however, not particularly sympathetic to their view. He was aware that his superior Major General Samuel R. Curtis had issued orders that Indians were not to be permitted inside forts without blindfolds and only for specific reasons. Curtis had only been recently assigned to Indian duty, having spent much of 1864 fighting Confederates in Missouri, and he was not used to dealing with Indians. On the other hand, Anthony found himself in a situation where his predecessor had offered the protection of the flag to a group of Indians, which was seemingly endorsed by the Governor and a colonel of the Colorado militia.

He tried to split the difference. He demanded that Black Kettle’s band and the Arapahoes give up their arms and all the property they stole from the whites. The chiefs readily agreed. Anthony reported that there were so few weapons and almost no ammunition, so the Indians could not have fought if they wanted to. They also returned a few pack animals. They camped outside the fort, and Anthony issued them provisions. What seems to have changed his policy (he could never explain it convincingly to the congressional investigating committee) was the dearness of provisions. With the rising price and increasing scarcity of everything, it became problematic to provide for the large number of mostly helpless Indians. Of course, the reason thee Indians were so pliable was the scarcity of food and their own inability to hunt. Nevertheless, Anthony ordered them away from the fort. He suggested they move on to Sand Creek. He told them he would advise them if he received any communication from his superiors to their request for peace terms.

Anthony J. Scott. Engraving from unknown book, linked at (which omits mention of Anthony's participation at the Sand Creek Massacre.)

Scott J. Anthony. Engraving from unknown book, uploaded to (which omits mention of Anthony’s participation at the Sand Creek Massacre.)

Over the next 12 days or so he was in communication with the Indians at Sand Creek. He twice received reports from One Eye, a Cheyenne chief, of bands of Dog Soldiers in the area. There was also Jack Smith there, who Anthony relied on for intelligence.

Then on November 28, Colonel Chivington arrived. His arrival completely surprised the fort. He sent no word in advance. In fact he prevented all mail and other communications in the area from reaching the fort so that he would not be discovered. (No one, including Chivington, ever explained why he took these measures. Perhaps he believed that someone at the fort would tip off the Indians he intended to ambush.)

When Chivington arrived that night, he disclosed his intention to attack the Indians at Sand Creek at dawn. He asked Anthony to provide additional men (Chivington having no command authority over Anthony), and Anthony agreed.

Having told the congressional committee that he assured Black Kettle that he would advise him of any response to his peace requests, he should have expected this question:

Question [by Missouri Congressman Benjamin Franklin Loan]: Did you send any word to Black Kettle that you intended to attack him or his band at any time?

Answer. None, whatsoever. It was a surprise, made without any notice whatever to them.

Anthony seemed unprepared for the consternation. Didn’t he offer them protection? Not in so many words. Didn’t he consider them his prisoners? No, he was under orders to fight all Indians, and he felt free to attack even this band, even after they offered to surrender and even while inside the army camp. So why didn’t he? Well, he thought that would lead to a general Indian war. But I thought you said you thought there was already a war, and that’s why you were justified any Indians you could. Yes, but we didn’t feel we could take on the 3,000 warriors we were told were in the area. So why did you go with Chivington to attack these same Indians? I thought we would go on and confront the larger hostile band.

It turned out that this could never have been the intention of Chivington because he did not pursue any who fled. Instead he stayed to massacre the women and children.

Anthony, trying to impress on the committee that the attack was not a craven slaughter, attempted to inflate the number of Indian warriors. As the number of casualties were subtracted there was a number of 500 warriors, according to Anthony’s calculation, unaccounted for. He explained that they must have run off.

Question. Was your command a mounted command?

Answer. Yes, sir.

Question. How did the remainder of the Indians escape?

Answer. On foot.

Question. What kind of country was it?

Answer. Prairie country, slightly rolling; grass very short.

Question. Do you say that Colonel Chivington’s command of 700 mounted men allowed 500 of these Indians to escape?

Answer. Yes, sir; and we ourselves lost 49 in killed and wounded.

Question. Why did you not pursue the flying Indians and kill them?

Answer. I do not know; that was the fault I found with Colonel Chivington at the time.

The inference to be drawn was plain: Chivington had no desire to pursue anyone that might fire back. He was content with slaughtering women, children and old me. In fact, the army never went on to pursue the 3,000 “warriors” supposedly beyond the peaceful encampment.

When the committee issued its report, excoriating Chivington, it highlighted the testimony of Anthony, which, it found, was “sufficient of itself to show how unprovoked and unwarranted was this massacre.” But neither Anthony (who mustered out of the Army on January 22, 1865) nor Chivington (who left the service on January 8, 1865) were subject to court-martial for the outrages. Nor was there any hope for local prosecution. In fact, just the opposite, Chivington had become a hero locally. The editorial of the Rocky Mountain News, which first broke the assault in Denver, was effusive: “Among the brilliant feats of arms in Indian warfare, the recent campaign of our Colorado volunteers will stand in history with few rivals, and none to exceed it in final results.”

It was clear to those who reproved his craven attack that Chivington was seeking political office or had some ulterior motive for striking a defenseless, friendly camp of Indians. The U.S. marshal for Colorado, A.C. Hall, thought he was looking for promotion. “He had read of Kit Carson, General Harvey, and others, who had become noted for their Indian fighting.” D.D. Colley, son of Major Colley, thought that he wanted to dispatch Indians quickly so as to rendezvous his forces to strike rebels in Texas. General Curtis thought the fault lay in the promotion given those involved in the Ash Hallow Massacre a decade before. No one offered a plausible military justification.

In fact, many believed that the slaughter increased the attacks by hostile Indians that winter. The army’s “voice of reason” in the vicinity, General Curtis, who condemned Chivington’s actions mostly on grounds of military regularity, told General Halleck, Army Chief of Staff, that he did not believe the increased attacks stemmed from Chivington. His reasoned on purely racist grounds: “The Indians of the plains are generally robbers and murderers, and act only from motives of hunger and avarice in their assaults, and by fear in their forbearance.” There was not much room between Chivington’s view of a solution to the Indian crisis and regular Army’s. And so the Indian war would be driven to a genocidal conclusion.

Although he was celebrated locally, he never achieved the political offices he thought he deserved. When he ran for Congress, the Republicans nominated another, perhaps wisely understanding that Chivington would find no ally in Washington Republicans. But he was repeatedly celebrated in Colorado and even held local office. Two years before his death he was Denver’s coroner (in which office he was accused of stealing money from a corpse). He never felt it was enough, and he sued the federal government for expenses of his expedition. (He won nothing.) Later in life a series of scandals surrounded his name, including accusations that he committed arson to recover on insurance. He was also arrested for forging a promissory note in his wife’s name. The sum of all of these later crimes, for which he escaped punishment as well, pales in comparison to the butchery on November 29, 1864, but suggests that Chivington was perhaps a sociopath. But for his great crime he escaped because the country that produced him was equally sociopathic, scrambling for gold, prostrate before Eastern capital, willing to break faith and shed blood for their enrichment. And the principle way to excuse the crimes they all wanted committed was to convince themselves that the victims had forfeited their right to live by failing to submit to the demands of the superior race.

Some things remain the same 150 years later.


Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston: [1971]).

Lori Cox-Paul, “John M Chivington: The ‘Reverend Colonel’ ‘Marry-Your-Daughter’ ‘Sand Creek Massacre,’” 88 Nebraska History 126-137, 142-147 (2007).

Obituary, “Col. Chivington, Preacher and Soldier,” New York Times, October 14, 1894, p. 23.

United States Senate, “Massacre of Cheyenne Indians,” Report of the Joint Committee on The Conduct of the War. Senate Report No. 142, 38th Congress, Second Session (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office: 1865).

The regularized police occupation of Ferguson, Missouri

The man who was with Michael Brown the day he was murdered is Dorian Johnson. His testimony to the Grand Jury is posted on, and you can read it (and download it) here.

Just from reading the testimony, I think any fair-minded person would say that Johnson is a truthful and open witness. He was so treated by the prosecutors. He was something of a role model to the younger men in the community who came up to him and asked about how he was able to transition out of poverty and violence to be able to hold a job and have an apartment of his own. (Consider that fact, reader. Having a job and apartment are considered difficult feats requiring guidance to young men in certain parts of this country!) He had lived in the neighborhood about eight months and had a girlfriend and daughter.

The encounter with Darren Wilson as explained by Johnson was harrowing. Wilson came with a chip on his shoulder (to put it mildly). He cursed at them from his car. And when they thought he was gone, he sped up behind their backs nearly hitting them, and then in fact hostilely opened the door of his car and actually hit them. He grabbed Brown by the collar through his window. All this, without any claim by Wilson that either man committed a crime or any request by him that they submit to him for any reason.

Johnson says he was in “shock” from the beginning because he realized that Wilson (and Brown) needed to “calm down” but he was unable to open his mouth because the incident kept escalating.

You can read the testimony yourself, to judge if the the prosecutor-led grand jury was justified in concluding that there was no probable cause to believe that Wilson had committed a crime. (You don’t need a spoiler alert for the answer to that.)

What I bring this document up for is something that was a bit of an aside, and treated completely casually by the prosecutor who wanted to know if Johnson or Brown knew of Wilson beforehand. Johnson’s answer revealed that the residents of the apartment complex Johnson lived in treated the police as an occupying force and they were constantly advising each other of the whereabouts of officers in the neighborhood. Something like I imagine how the Dutch told each other about the whereabouts of German soldiers or SS during the occupation.

Here’s what Johnson said (pp. 60-61):

[Q]           While you are in the apartment complex, I mean, I’m quite sure sometimes you hear through the grapevine well, yeah, this guy got stopped or whatever or the police is like that, did you hear any conversations to that effect from any residents [sic] and complex?

A              Yes, ma’am, all the time. Every day I hear different stories about people’s different encounters with Ferguson Police. Be very mindful of the police around. Whenever you’re coming outside the door, people are always giving you a warning, they are up the street now, they are down the street or something in that manner basically keeping you aware of Ferguson Police.

If there were any further proof needed that there are two Americas, and one is as much occupied as Gaza, this is it. Matter-of-fact statement of the realities of dealing with authoritarians in uniforms. Where is the Tea Party when the very offenses listed in the Declaration of Independence, that document they constantly celebrate, are taking place every day?

How do we know the fix was in at the Ferguson grand jury?

Grand Juries, despite the romantic view of them, are creatures of the prosecution. The prosecutor decides what evidence to show the jurors and what to withhold. The prosecutor instructs the jurors on the law and draws up the bill he wants them to find. They have such little independence that former New York State Chief Judge Sol Wachler once said that a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich if the prosector wanted.

Of course, the opposite is true.

How do we know, however, that the prosecutor in Ferguson intended the grand jury to return no true bill? The answer is that the target Officer Darren Wilson chose to testify to the grand jury.

Now consider this: In a grand jury a target has no lawyer. There is no judge to decide what questions can be put to him. A target is at the mercy of the prosecutor, if he agrees to testify. Of course, the constitution gives the defendant the right to refuse to testify. And there is no criminal defense attorney that I have ever heard of who would allow his witness to testify, except if he had great confidence in the prosecutor. And yet Officer Wilson testified and a few short weeks later he is free (from state charges, anyway).

Prosecutors can obtain indictments of ham sandwiches. They can also let the sandwich rot, if they want to save someone from the law. And that’s what happened here. It’s as plain as day.

Petrarch’s Remorse for his Obsessive Passion

Petrarch. Drawing by Aldo Salvadori in The Sonnets of Petrarch edited by Thomas G. Bergin (NY: The Heritage Preess: c1966).

Petrarch. Drawing by Aldo Salvadori in The Sonnets of Petrarch edited by Thomas G. Bergin (NY: The Heritage Preess: c1966).

Those of us who rarely read much Renaissance literature know Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch in English) mainly for his contributions to cultural heritage rather than his actual literary output. He is called the “Father of Humanism” because he was one of the first to revive the “conversational” Cicero (from his letters), wrote poetry of intense subjectivity and used the common language, Italian, in his poetry rather than the elite Latin universally used by the educated or what passed for the literate in those days. (Petrarch himself was a priest and an essayist (although he generally used the form of the letter to anonymous friend or long-dead correspondent like Virgil or Cicero). He also “invented” the sonnet, a poetic form that became popular in many languages.

His poetry is not widely known today, however, because, so I remembered, it involved that High Renaissance commonplace, the ardor and anguish of the obsessed lover unable to consummate his desire. Needless to say, that concept has little resonance in our day of instantly gratified impulses. The object of his chaste but intense passion was “Laura,” possibly the wife of a nobleman. His exclamatory poetry was collected later into a book of 300+ sonnets called Il Canzonieri (“The Songbook”). I looked at the collection recently to get an idea why the early modernists of the 20th Century paid so little attention to Petrarch, although they avowed much admiration for Petrarch’s models, the Troubadours, and his contemporary (and follower in the use of Italian for poetry), Dante.

On first glance the love poetry itself seemed very mannered. But one poem stuck out for me: the very first one “Voi ch’ascoltate in rime sparse il suono.” It can serve as an introduction to the rest, and as such is easily overlooked but a close reading shows that Petrarch is deeply distressed, not for his unrequited love, nor for having loved and lost, but rather for the shame his obsessive love brought on him. He has now well passed grief and acceptance and can examine the entire 20-year “affair” with the objectivity of one who no longer can be disturbed by the ephemeral; in fact, he has transcended not only his actual love but his belief in it. Instead he has come to the realization that all is simply transitory.

The poem is not something one could expect from the Middle Ages. It is at least “Romantic” in outlook. Of course, it could simply be a pose. (And of course so could the passion for Laura itself.) But it breathes the nihilism of one who has made a personal breakthrough, as much as any of the “revolutionaries” of early modernism. It is enough for me to warrant a closer look at his poetry. In the meantime, here is Sonnet I:

Voi ch’ascoltate in rime sparse il suono

Part I:1
(? 1348-1359)

by Francisco Petrarca

Voi ch’ascoltate in rime sparse il suono
di quei sospiri ond’io nudriva ‘l core
in sul mio primo giovenile errore
quand’era in parte altr’uom da quel ch’i’ sono:

del vario stile in ch’io piango et ragiono,
fra le vane speranze e ‘l van dolore,
ove sia chi per prova intenda amore,
spero trovar pietà, nonché perdono.

Ma ben veggio or sí come al popol tutto
favola fui gran tempo, onde sovente
di me mesdesmo meco mi vergogno;

e del mio vaneggiar vergogna è ‘l frutto
e ‘l pentersi, e ‘l conoscer chiaramente
che quanto piace al mondo è breve sogno.

To the Reader

[translated by DK Fennell]

From those who hear in my disordered verse
The sound of sighs on which I fed my breast
With juvenile delusions much obsessed
When I was more than half as much the worse,

Of that disjointed way I think and grieve
Between vain hope and ineffective grief,
From those who’ve loved and still retain belief,
I hope for pity, even for reprieve.

But I now plainly see my common fame
Is as an ancient fable, so much so
That often in my heart I feel disgrace;

And that the fruit of my conceit is shame,
And self-reproach, and fully come to know
Just how the world is but a fleeting trace.

Can a naturalist give us meaning?

A case can be made (a strong one, I think) that Edward O. Wilson is the greatest living naturalist.

His credentials are prodigious. A chaired professor at Harvard. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Co-author of one of the greatest books (i.e., book qua opus) ever produced: The Ants. The world’s leading experts on one of the Earth’s largest (by biomass) and most diverse clades, one of the few that developed true social behavior. The creator of a discipline, sociobiology, which attempts to merge biology and behavioral sciences. Curator of Harvard’s insect collection. And recently, a proponent for dispensing with a thoroughly entrenched theoretical approach to the evolutionary explanation of eusociality—inclusive fitness. This last point may be the least appreciated. A central tenet of a field that one has practiced in, indeed a tenet that one has advanced in several important works, is not something that most scientists or academics would attempt to overturn late in one’s career. There is no percentage in it, except intellectual honesty, a commodity that in our day has been greatly devalued. But like all great figures from the time of heroes, Wilson thinks of little else.

In addition to all the foregoing, Wilson can add spokesman for the cause of biodiversity, promoter of evolution as a world view, mentor of younger scientists, all round charming individual and graceful writer.

If I could have done one thing on Wilson’s extensive resume, it would unquestionably be writing The Ants. The book transcends its subject matter. You need not be interested in ants at all (although only a few pages into this book would make you so) to admire the breath of the scholarship, observation and thinking behind the immense subject matter. It is the kind of book that you can simply admire for its organization, its writing, its comprehensiveness, and its ability to make you care about something you had no idea you should care about. Or you can just look at the pictures. You can use the book as a litmus test. Say, for example, you are looking for a community to move to. Simply go to the public library there and find out if it has this book. If it does, move there. If not, evaluate why you are considering that place.

I bring all of this up because Wilson has recently published a book that tackles a subject that we supposedly had become too mature to consider: the meaning of human existence. In fact that’s the name of his book, The Meaning of Human Existence (NY: Liveright Publishing Corp.: c2014).

Before examining the book, however, let me return to what I called Wilson originally: a naturalist. By naturalist I mean a person who views the living world as a process with history. Stereotypically naturalists observe, classify and speculate on the origins of living phenomena. Naturalists are thus different from mathematicians, certainly. But they are also different from physicists and chemists who look for “laws” or repeatable explanations for phenomena. For a naturalist, history is the hidden cause. Nothing is necessarily inevitable. What is now, did not have to be. Geneticists can fall on either side of the line. Originally geneticists were concerned only with the operation of replication, protein replication, etc. But with molecular phylogenetics, geneticists now also deal with history (although in a dry, mathematical kind of way). But they are still not naturalists in the same way. Naturalists observe phenotypes dealing with an environment filled with other phenotypes: Darwin’s “this view of life.” To a naturalist, natural selection operates all the time. It is visible, not a code. And Wilson’s perpective on human “meaning” is decidedly a naturalist’s one.

The fact that all life on earth descended from a common ancestor has profound philosophical implications. The simplest one is that it precludes the existence of a theistic god. On a visceral level, no sentient being, with any regard for his “creation” could have allowed natural selection to be the means of populating this or any other planet. Darwin himself rejected god’s existence for this very reason. It had to do with ichneumon wasps, which deposit eggs into other insects so that the larva have a living body to devour from the inside. He wrote Asa Gray, a Harvard naturalist (one who would have a common perspective for that very reason):

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

On a somewhat different level natural selection does away with the “need” for a god. It is a mechanism that is both simple and robust. And of course it is corroborated by every discipline in the biological sciences, as no other creation explanation is or can be.

Fundamentalists are right to fight tooth and nail against the teaching of evolution. There is no more effective rebuttal to dogma than Charles Darwin and the science that developed from his powerful idea. People like Francis Collins can pretend to accept both natural selection and the existence of god, but when you ask him what he means by “god,” you find that it is not something that is worth concerning yourself over.

And there is a much more important reason why evolution makes god irrelevant. And that is the starting point of Wilson’s book.

The purpose of a belief in a creation god is to discover the purpose of our existence. Evolution, however, shows that we arose quite randomly. If there was a god whose mind conceived of natural selection, then his “creation” of us was thoroughly whimsical. At no point in the history of life was it inevitable that we would exist. In fact, there were many points at which mere contingency operated. If the Cretaceous asteroid did not destroy the dominant life form on earth while rodent-like mammals hibernated beneath the surface, gigantic bird like creatures and immense, towering herbivores probably still would dominate the planet, while mammals eked a marginal existence, if they survived it all. If the small band of humanoids making their way in Africa had encountered an environmental catastrophe or fell victims to predators or a virulent contagious disease, humanity could have been choked off at the beginning. Those are only two of the numerous contingencies that explain our existence. They are historical explanations; not explanations derived from first principles like mathematics or laws of nature like physics.

So that’s where a naturalist like Wilson begins. We are the result of innumerable, random contingencies. It is a bracing realization, and one that is entirely different from a religious explanation. But that’s where a naturalist must begin, and so does Wilson.

What then?

Here’s is where the book seems to falter or at least fails to pursue a rigorous argument to be expected of someone who is arguing about “meaning.” But here again, it is necessary to realize that a naturalist’s perspective is not a rigorous argument derived from first principles. And so Wilson seems to wonder about a number of subjects on which his storied career concentrated. We read his musings on the limitations of our own sensory apparatus, the nature of those few experiments resulting in social organisms, the kind of animals he expects might produce “intelligence,” and his reverence for humanities, except in the future with a bit more science.

Much of this is quite amusing and thought-provoking. The idea that most of the animal world perceives its environment through the sense of smell is perhaps commonplace, but Wilson offers speculations that show how different we are from much of life. Anecdotes of how the natural world is interconnected by pheromones, a connection we cannot appreciate, is illuminating. His brief canvas of the reasons to preserve biodiversity and the threats we close to it is informative but in some senses both familiar and depressing. His educated guesses about what an extraterrestrial intelligent being might be like is entertaining (although more debatable than he lets on). One point he makes is quite astute: that no extra-terrestrial has ever visited us because there is only one alternative: either, like us, they are bent on conquest, in which case they would have to sterilize the entire planet to prevent incompatibility with the microbiome of this planet or they would have realized that it is best not to make the attempt, either for “humanitarian” or practical reasons. Under the same analysis, we are unlikely ever to witness an ET encounter (or at last not for long).

In one respect the book is quite weak. It lists all the threats to our existence and suggests that as a species it is in our interest to solve them. And while Wilson knows as much as anyone that our “eusociality” is a selective adaptation fashioned in the Paleolithic era, when concerns about conservation and population control and self-imposed checks on consumption and exploitation of the environment were not at all relevant, he doesn’t explain what forces will allow us now to overcome the predisposition towards individual and group selfishness that is the hallmark of all eusocial organisms. After all, an individual driver ant cannot be expected to suggest, Hey if we had fewer eggs we might not have to devour everything in our path. But of course, it might be a bit unfair to criticize him for not solving the problem of our dysfunctional social organization in small, 200-page book. But, as I noted before, scientists have a distressing tendency to ignore the entrenched political and economic interests that will, for sheer self-interest, oppose even the simplest steps to preserve our kind. Naturalists will view, with equanimity, the extinction of a species not fit for its environments. Millions of species have gone the way of Dimetrodon. Yet when it comes to whether our social-economic-political organization has rendered us unsuited for much longer survival and if so what is the way out, they pass over the question on the ground that they are not “political.” (Wilson doesn’t use this excuse. He simply ignores the patent reality.)

In the end Wilson arrives at a rather hopeful view of our “meaning.” It is appropriately modest and depends on what we materially are, rather than what we “spiritually” wish we were. Wilson gets to this hopeful existential view in the quirky, contingent way that we got to where we are. At least, as a naturalist sees it. Given that competing visions of “meaning” all lead to perdition, it’s worth contemplating how a historically based view of the matter might provide a better solution to our existential dilemma. And his book is as entertaining as you would expect from a naturalist as accomplished as Wilson. The problem is that for those who seek a “meaning” based on fixed laws, God will always trump Chance. And without God those folk will never find Meaning. And that fact will likely ultimately lead to our own meaningless self-destruction. But that, my friends, is also an operation of natural selection. Not all, not most, species survive, and none for very long (in a geological sense), and that might be another way a naturalist could see our own species, although Wilson is far too genial a writer,  even to suggest that obvious fact.


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