Thursday, September 25, 2003

Davy Crockett at the Alamo

Staying up last night with the baby I managed to catch a Discovery Channel special on the Alamo.
I know it is an old issue and all, but it still irritates me when I have to listen to all the debate about the Jose Enrique de la Pena diary and whether it proves that Davy Crockett was captured and executed by Santa Anna.

The first thing that struck me about the show was that de la Pena apparently had two diaries. The first was written in his own hand and was a journal that he kept during his travels with the Mexican Army. There is little doubt about the authenticity of this first document which is certainly a valuable contribution to our historical knowledge. But nowhere in this first document is there any mention of Davy Crockett being captured at the Alamo. He apparently didn't find that little tidbit of information important enough to mention in his daily journal at the time. Instead, it shows up in the second set of documents which were allegedly transcribed by de la Pena many years later while he was sick and dying in prison. This second set of documents which were written by as many as five separate people contain the controversial account of Crockett's execution.
The Discovery Channel show spends an inordinante amount of time trying to determine whether the second set of documents could have been forged. Their conclusion is that there is no evidence to support claims of forgery.

This is all fine. But why does it therefore follow that the story told in the document is true and accurate? The Discovery Channel show just assumes as much. To accept de la Pena's account we have to disregard the eyewitness accounts of two other people present at the aftermath of the battle - Susanna Dickinson and Travis' slave, both of whom identified Crockett's remains surrounded by dead Mexican soldiers.

Let's assume that the second set of documents are not forgeries and also that de la Pena was telling the truth as he remembered it.
Could someone please tell me how Mr. de la Pena would have even known what Davy Crockett looked like? At least Mrs. Dickinson and Travis' slave had the opportunity to meet and see Crockett in person. De la Pena at best might have at one time seen a drawing of Crockett though that is never addressed in any of the historical accounts. Was this person wearing the famed coonskin cap? That was common headgear for many of the Tennessee volunteers at the Alamo.
Did this person identify themselves as Crockett? How do we know it wasn't someone else pretending to be Crockett in the hope that it would save his life.
All in all I find the de la Pena account of Crockett's death to be wholly unconvincing and I'm constantly amazed when I hear historical reports about his accounts that fail to raise these obvious questions.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Ashcroft: Plea Bargains are for wimps!!

Attorney General John Ashcroft is an idiot! OK, maybe that is a bit strong. What I mean to say is that he is an ideologue who is driven to the point of being impractical.

Case in point:

Today the NYTimes is reporting that Ashcroft has issued a directive to federal prosecutors requiring them to always charge defendants with the "most serious, readily provable offense" and not to engage in plea negotiations thereafter.

Nevermind that experts say such a move could swamp our courts with defendants going to trial rather than plea-bargaining for lighter sentences. Ashcroft has a political point to make and he won't let something as inconvenient as reality get in the way.

"If even just a small fraction of the 96 percent of all defendants who currently plead guilty end up going to trial, the courts will be overrun in no time," said Marc Mauer, the assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a research group in Washington that supports prisoners' rights.

"David Burnham, co-director of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which tracks data on federal law enforcement, said the Justice Department could not significantly reduce plea bargains "without collapsing the entire court system."

Plea bargains "are a necessary thing," Mr. Burnham said. "Plea bargains have been used historically because the courts don't have time to have trials. Charges are reduced to encourage prisoners to avoid going to trial, and we just don't have enough judges to do it differently. If you force everyone to go to trial, you'd have to hire a lot more judges."

Oh, I get it! This must be part of Bush's plan to try to create more jobs to make up for some of the thousands that have been lost under his watch.

"Alan Vinegrad, a former United States attorney in Brooklyn, said the change represented a philosophical shift. "There is less of a focus on justice and more of a focus on efficiency," Mr. Vinegrad said."

Well, we wouldn't want too much "justice" in our judicial system. It's just not very efficient. What we need is fewer prosecutors who think for themselves and more automatons who act like rubber stamps.

The NYTimes ran a guest op-ed on this issue in the Sunday paper -
A Practice as Old as Justice Itself

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Music survey

Zagat Surveys has just put out its first book on music in which it lists the 1,000 top albums.

Here is their Top 10:

1. "Born To Run," Bruce Springsteen
2. "Abbey Road," the Beatles
3. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," the Beatles
4. "The Joshua Tree," U2
5. "The White Album," The Beatles
6. "Kind of Blue," Miles Davis
7. "Darkness on the Edge of Town," Bruce Springsteen
8. "Revolver," the Beatles
9. "Dark Side of the Moon," Pink Floyd
10. "Achtung Baby," U2

I have all of these albums so I guess my musical tastes fit the popular mood pretty well.

Compare and contrast

I want to compare and contrast two guest columns that ran in the San Antonio Express-News this past Sunday.
The first takes a critical look at the Bush administration's conduct of the war in Iraq and is written by Joseph Beck, a local high school student.
The second is defending the U.S. war on terrorism and is written by Mike Reeder, a former senior television producer for the Republican National Committee who now lives in Boerne.

Upon first seeing the columns my reaction was dismay. Once again the "So Called Liberal Media" was setting up an unfair fight with the "conservative" view point put forth by a professional pundit straight from the RNC, while the "liberal" perspective is left to the defense of some high school kid.
But after reading the articles, I have to admit that young Mr. Beck carried off his part rather well. His article is straightforward and coherent. He is tough on the administration without being rude or disrespectful. He seems to have all his facts straight and doesn't go off the deep end making any wild accusations.
Here is a sample of Beck's column:

"Of course, it is possible, and probably very likely, that the administration believed WMDs did exist at one time in Iraq. However, how could the administration, with power and responsibility of unparalleled proportions, have relied so exclusively on "information" that has so easily been discredited?"

Now compare this with the article by Mr. Reeder.
He starts off right away with name calling and insults. The "left" is "soft-headed" and their every utterance is "drivel", Reeder opines.
He then makes some rather disturbing statements regarding the war in Afghanistan that he also ties in with the war in Iraq.

"Not a single one of the trained terrorists killed in that conflict will ever board a plane with mayhem in mind or carry out the biological and chemical attacks they were trained to conduct. When one considers the destruction wrought by a handful of hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, it is difficult to see how permanently eliminating thousands of would-be emulators has not enhanced our security."

First off, our reason for going into Afghanistan was to confront the Al Quaeda leadership that we had determined was holed up there. Ousting the reprehensible Taliban from power was a nice bonus that resulted from the conflict. But to assume that everyone of the thousands of Afghan men killed in the conflict were somehow complicit or guilty of the 9-11 attacks is very wrong. And to assume that their deaths will somehow make us safer, is just sickening.
We were right to go after Al Quaeda, but what Mr. Reeder seems to advocate is a type of lynch mob justice where just about any person of Middle Eastern descent can be labeled a terrorist and become a target. Such illogic is what led our nation into its current detour into the Iraqi quagmire.

Reading articles like the one by young Mr. Beck gives me some hope for our country that the shrill rantings of people like Mr. Reeder cannot undermine.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

What the Texas Democrats should do next...

Here is my contribution to the Blogburst that is being coordinated by the Texas Democrats No. 1 blogger Charlie Kuffner:

The Democrats showed a spark of life this year for the first time since losing all their statewide officeholders.
By showing a little backbone and doing something outrageous to protest the GOP's re-redistricting they garnered national attention and energized much of their core constituency.
Now even if the Republicans ultimately succeed with their mid-decade Perrymandering scheme, at least the Democrats didn't just roll over and take it like chumps. Now the question is how can they keep that spark of life going into the foreseeable future?

First, the Party should make a big issue of trying to save the Congressmen who are being targeted by the re-redistricting effort. Nick Lampson, Jim Turner, Chet Edwards, Charlie Stenholm, heck even Ralph Hall, should be the focal point of a statewide or perhaps nationwide Democratic effort to deny Tom Delay his illicit victory. And even if some or all of them lose, they should be encouraged to run for other statewide offices in the next election. Have one of the ex-congressmen challenge a Republican state senator or try to win back some of the statewide offices that are now under GOP control.

Second, the Party should make sure that they have a viable candidate in every statewide race next time around. Leaving so many open spots on the last general election ballot was a debacle for the Democrats. We can't cede anything to the Republicans without losing more and more ground. And worse, failure to run candidates in every race opens the way for those Republican dupes better known as the Green Party.

Third, don't let the Party's message become too centered around divisive issues - such as race and religion. The Democratic Party's strength is in its diversity. If there is a group of people who are opposed to one issue, try and find common ground on some other topics. The Democratic Party's primary focus should be good government. We are the party that believes that government of the people can and does work. We should never shy away from defending the principles of good government and we should always be ready to point out the shortcomings of the Republicans' anti-government philosophy.

I was proud to be a Democrat again this year and I'm sure I am not alone. The Democratic Party can and should take advantage of this situation and just remember that the tide will turn back again, perhaps sooner than many people are expecting.

Still not committed

I'm still not committed to any of the Democratic candidates at this point. While that would not be surprising for an average American at this point, it seems to be highly unusual for a denizen of the political blogosphere.
In past elections I've seen candidates I liked drop out long before I ever had an opportunity to vote for them in the primary, so I have a tendency to want to hold back and see how things shake out first.

My initial response to the Democratic lineup was to lean ever so slightly towards Sen. John Kerry. He is a mainstream liberal with lots of experience and his military background makes for a striking contrast with Bush. However, I have also been intrigued by Howard Dean's candidacy, especially as it began to catch fire on the Internet. One of my best friends lives up in Burlington, Vermont and is now a big Dean supporter and that has encouraged me to take him more seriously, in fact, you could say that the idealistic part of me is already on board with the Dean camp. But the pragmatic side of me still has fears dating back to the 1988 Dukakis campaign when I first witnessed the Republican slime machine in full force. I still remember Bush Sr.'s smug references to the "L" word, his visits to the flag factory, and the creepy visage of Willie Horton that hovered over the campaign.
The thing that is different about Dean, however, is that he has generated this level of interest so early in the race. Dukakis really did not stand out until he wound up on top of the heap after the primary voting had begun.

As for the other candidates, I think Gephardt should have stayed in the House rather than throwing in the towel on trying to win back a Democratic majority there. Edwards ticked me off by deciding to give up his Senate seat in South Carolina. Lieberman is a tad too conservative for my taste. Graham would be a great candidate if he could get traction, but that will probably only happen if several other folks stumble badly (i.e. Gary Hart). Kucinich, Mosely Braun and Sharpton are not serious candidates.

Wesley Clark's entry into the race adds another level of intrigue for me. The biggest drawback here is his lack of political experience. E.J. Dionne has an excellent article in the WashPo today discussing that topic. I have to be fair in admitting that if Clark had announced that he was a Republican, his lack of experience is one of the first things I would have jumped on. So I would need to rectify that in some way before I could fully commit to his candidacy. That being said, however, I would support almost any one of these candidates in a general election matchup with Bush.