Archive for July 2011

The Council Has Spoken: July 29, 2011

Congratulations to this week’s winners.

Council: GrEaT sAtAn”S gIrLfRiEnD-Syria Soft!

Noncouncil: Victor Davis Hanson- The Great Madness of 2004-10

Full voting here.

Obama The Anti-Leader

Last  night I was just drifting off to sleep when the dogs outside started barking like crazy. So I did what every good Southerner does: I pulled on some clothes, grabbed a rifle and went outside to see what all the ruckus was about. A bright beam of light enveloped me as I stepped outside, casting deep blue shadows. As I squinted into the light I could see a small flying saucer about the size of a Prius descending slowly above the chicken coop. My heart sank.

“Don’t squish my chickens you alien bastards!” I shouted. They must have heard me for they suddenly adjusted course and landed a few feet away.

It was like a scene from a ‘50s B-movie. A silver ramp descended from the saucer, and upon it were short bug-eyed creatures. The dogs were absolutely beside themselves, barking furiously and charging at the fence that usually kept them from the chickens but now prevented them from tearing the aliens apart. The aliens must have realized the danger they were in because one waved a super-thin Kate Moss-like arm, and several Bojangles boxes of chicken wings appeared in front of each dog. In the silence that followed I could hear my heart beating as the aliens advanced upon me.

“Take me to your leader,” one requested in a shrill voice that sounded oddly nasal and Jewish.

So I introduced them to the Wife…

While I may have exaggerated a bit in the intro above, I got to thinking about the lack of leadership shown by President Obama the past several months over the budget and the debt ceiling. Yesterday’s op-ed in Investors Business Daily lays it out in detail:

• In February 2010, instead of producing a budget that tackled the national debt — which his own reckless spending caused — Obama appointed a bipartisan commission to tell him what to do. When the commission issued its findings in December, Obama ignored it.

• In his State of the Union speech in January, Obama said “now is the time to act” on the debt, and then produced a budget weeks later that proposed piling up $7 trillion in deficits over a decade. The debt commission’s Democratic co-chair, Erskine Bowles, complained that the budget went “nowhere near where they will have to go to resolve our fiscal nightmare.”

• Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., had even harsher words, saying “history will condemn us all if we don’t do substantially more (to reduce the debt) than is in this budget.” When Senate Democrats had the chance to vote on Obama’s budget, not one approved it.

• Earlier this year, Obama was insisting on a “clean vote” to raise the debt limit — giving him more room to borrow while doing nothing to cut future deficits. “Let’s not have the kind of linkage where we’re even talking about not raising the debt ceiling,” he said. When a “clean vote” came up in the House, more than two-fifths of Democrats voted against it.

• In April, after Republicans produced a serious, credible debt-reduction plan, Obama gave a speech that contained nothing but vague concepts, while effectively calling the GOP plan un-American.

• Months later, Obama still hadn’t produced anything substantive. In fact, when the head of the Congressional Budget Office was asked in June about how Obama’s “plan” would actually work, he said he couldn’t give an answer because “we don’t estimate speeches.”

• Then, rather than take the lead on debt negotiations, Obama appointed Vice President Joe Biden to come up with a bipartisan package, wasting weeks and ultimately getting nowhere.

• When Obama did get directly involved, his insistence on tax hikes wasted still more time, derailing progress on any plan with a realistic chance of getting through Congress.

• And despite months of Obama’s blasting Republicans for refusing to raise taxes, the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, D-Nev., this week put forth a plan that contains $2.7 billion in spending cuts and zero in new taxes. Yet, undaunted, Obama continued to insist on tax hikes in his Monday national address.

With the exceptions of his initial handling of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, I have never supported the president. But well past the midpoint of his term, my problem with him isn’t even so much ideological anymore. Yes Obama is a liberal but being a libertarian at heart I can agree with liberals more often than they might believe. The problem that I have with Obama now is that he does not know how to lead.

His biggest accomplishments so far have been Obamacare and the Stimulus plan, both of which were formulated by Democrats in Congress. What other accomplishments has he claimed? The draw-down in Iraq? That was set in place by President Bush under Secretary of Defense Gates. I suppose driving the government to the brink of default (and perhaps over it) is an accomplishment, if one is a registered Republican and expects to see that party retake the White House in 2012. Today his White House press secretary was trumpeting fuel economy standards as yet another accomplishment of this administration. Honestly, even as someone who voted for McCain and views this president as the worst since Jimmy Carter, I expected more.

Liberals can lead. Clinton. Johnson. Kennedy. All had accomplishments in their first terms that were undeniably their own. Johnson especially was a notorious arm-twister. He knew how to get the votes that he needed for his legislation. Obama whines about John Boehner, but Clinton had young, energized Newt Gingrich and Republicans controlling BOTH houses of Congress to deal with, yet he managed to get things done.

Today America doesn’t have a leader. It’s not Obama. It’s not Harry Reid or John Boehner. At this critical moment in history, when European nations are about to default on their debts and we face the financial abyss ourselves, there is no one at the top who has a vision of America and understands how to use the levers of power at his disposal to achieve it.

Worse than that, we have what I can best describe as an anti-leader: Not only is Obama not a leader who brings people together, he drives them apart. Consider that there was no White House or office of the president. It would not be impossible to imagine Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Reid meeting a few times and hashing out a compromise deal that would stave off default yet be acceptable the majority of both bodies. I am no fan of either men, but both have shown the ability to do their jobs. Just when they come up with a compromise, Obama injects himself into the proces and suddenly everything falls apart. Boehner goes off to have a good cry and Reid… Well I’m not sure what Reid does but I’m sure it’s equally embarrassing.

Leading is at the top of the job description for president, and Obama doesn’t understand that. So when the aliens do come, and this being rural American where most close encounters of the third kind take place, you can rest assured that I will not be taking the aliens to Washington. I’ll just have to wake up the Wife instead.

Europe Paying the Price For the Amnesia of Its Past

Even though I live in a low crime area of the rural American South, I still lock the doors of my home. I also never leave my keys inside my car. That’s because while the likelihood of someone burglarizing my home or stealing my car may be small, they are not zero and such things as locking doors and not leaving ones keys in a vehicle are prudent. Similarly this year there have been numerous tornadoes around the state that have killed scores of people, but having grown up in the Midwest I was sure to buy a home with deep basement. I have also stocked it with a few days of emergency supplies “just in case.” Like many here I also do more to protect my home and family from unlikely events because where we live there is no one else to rely on if these events occur. As a fan of the book The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I recognize that it is impossible to prepare in detail for every possible contingency, so instead I have followed general principles for home protection and disaster preparedness that work across the board.

I’ve been thinking about this topic as I watched the horror in Norway unfold and as the European contingent of NATO has struggled this Summer with trying to remove a despot from power in Libya. To continue the metaphor, Europe has lost the ability to act prudently to defend itself. It has forgotten to lock its doors and to take its keys with it.

Both Taleb and Dietrich Dorner, author of The Logic of Failure, recognize that humans are terrible at assessing risk. Dorner believes that humans often continue risky behavior because the likelihood of bearing the consequences of the behavior is small.  Take speeding, for example. The first time a driver drives over the speed limit, the chance of being caught and ticketed by the police  is almost nothing; that it encourages him to continue to break the law. He enjoys the benefits of speeding (shaving a few minutes off his commute) while not fully appreciating the risk because it is so small. So he continues to speed and forgets that he is engaging in a risky – and illegal – behavior. The more he speeds, the more likely the odds are that he will attract the attention of the cops. That day eventually comes and he ends up holding a speeding ticket in his hands while contemplating a bump in his insurance premium. Even though he has been engaging in a risky behavior, he will doubtlessly think that he has been picked on by the police. Because the risk was so small for speeding, the driver had come to believe that it was in fact a risk-free behavior when in fact it wasn’t.

World War 2 was of such an epic scale that it devastated Europe both physically and psychologically. The war had so weakened the continent that it had no choice but to rely upon the United States for its defense. But an odd thing happened over the years. The defense was so complete that threats became invisible. Professional militaries cost money to equip and maintain, and the likelihood of needing them is small. So European governments cut them to the point where today, NATO is struggling to provide logistical support to a group of rebels in a small country in North Africa. Without the United States providing most of the equipment and personnel the effort to overthrow Mohammar Khadafi would collapse. European governments outsourced their defense to an outside power, and for sixty-five years have enjoyed the benefits of protection provided by the United States, while ignoring the risk of their behavior.

It’s easy to forget that for most of its history the United States has been an isolationist power; it has only been the last seventy-odd years that it has acted as an international one. The country was founded and later populated by people who fled from other places, particularly Europe, and weren’t particularly keen on getting involved with the politics of the places they left. Add in the buffers provided by two large oceans and Isolationism becomes the default state for America; internationalism is the outlier.

The risk of the United States turning isolationist and withdrawing from Europe seemed remote to Europeans, but it was not zero. Europe reaped the benefits of not having to provide for its own defense, so it was easy to devalue the risk further. Plus an odd thing happened through the years. The continent of Europe, so steeped in blood that it makes the entire known history of the Middle East and other regions of the world seem bloodless by comparison,  forgot it’s history. Instead of appreciating the American presence in Europe for providing for its defense, the Americans became viewed by some quarters as a cause of War, not a force for preventing it. It was the equivalent of viewing the police as the cause of crime. This attitude was transferred to the national militaries that worked closely with Americans in NATO and even the local police forces (who are often more closely allied with the national military than in the US) as well. Their budgets were slashed even further and those who served became denigrated by the very societies they had sworn to protect. Any inner city cop in America could relate.

Europe finds itself today paying the price for the amnesia of its past.  America is slowly returning to its isolationist nature, leaving the Europeans to fend for themselves. But wars in the former state of Yugoslavia and now in Libya show that Europe is in no condition to protect itself, let alone the people at risk of genocide in the region. The fact that Norwegian authorities had to beg for guns from their supervisors and took 90 minutes to respond to a single gunman on a rampage proves that Europe’s police forces are in no condition to act to protect its citizenry. Some may console themselves that the attack executed by a single madman is a rare event, but so is having one’s house burglarized or one’s car stolen. Sensible people still lock their doors and don’t leave their keys in the car.

It is time for Europe to come to terms with its past and become “normal.” This means losing the pacifism that infantilized it during the Cold War and recognizing that threats to it exist from within and without – that is, if it survives the coming collapse of the Eurozone. Europe needs to prepare for rare events by creating a better trained and equipped police force matched by a similarly trained and equipped military. Europe also needs to accept that it has not “evolved beyond war” as some have come to believe. Only then will it be able to prevent mass murders from happening in Norway or in countries like Libya.

The Council Has Spoken: July 22, 2011

Congratulations to this week’s winners.

Council: Simply Jews–-The Labor Of Hate

Noncouncil: The American Interest/Via Meadia- The Hate That Dares Not Speak Its Name

Full voting here.

The Assassination of Rupert Murdoch and the Right Wing

I haven’t written much about the News of the World scandal that is engulfing the Rupert Murdoch empire. I’m not going to waste my breath defending a billionaire; he has more resources than I do to do that, nor do I believe what has happened in the UK matters to his empire over here. British tabloid journalism has always been in the toilet. There’s even a princess in an early grave because of it – or at least partly. The focus on News Corp is like being swarmed by mosquitoes in the woods, killing one, and blaming that one bug for all your bites. . But I do think that the interest sparked on this side of the pond by the phone hacking scandal is pure politics. Janet Daley of the Daily Telegraph agrees:

This has gone way, way beyond phone hacking. It is now about payback. Gordon Brown’s surreal effusion in the House last week may have made it embarrassingly explicit, but the odour of vengeance has been detectable from the start: not just from politicians who have suffered the disfavour of Murdoch’s papers, or the trade unions (and their political allies) who have never forgiven him for Wapping, but from that great edifice of self-regarding, mutually affirming soft-Left orthodoxy which determines the limits of acceptable public discourse – of which the BBC is the indispensable spiritual centre.

Daley believes that the British Left is using the scandal to assassinate a political rival.

There is scarcely any outfit on the Right – be it political party, or media outlet – which demands the outright abolition of a Left-wing voice, as opposed to simply recommending restraint on its dominance (as I am with the BBC). That is because those of us on the Right are inclined to believe that our antagonists on the Left are simply wrong-headed – sometimes well-intentioned, sometimes malevolent but basically just mistaken. Whereas the Left believes that we are evil incarnate. Their demonic view of people who express even mildly Right-of-centre opinions (that lower taxes or less state control might be desirable, for example) would be risible if it were not so pernicious.

The Left does not want a debate or an open market in ideas. It wants to extirpate its opponents – to remove them from the field. It actually seems to believe that it is justified in snuffing out any possibility of our arguments reaching the impressionable masses – and bizarrely, it defends this stance in the name of fairness.

This concerns me. If Murdoch owned the New York Times or MSNBC I doubt that Eric Holder would be investigating – especially while he’s too busy stonewalling one of the biggest scandals that I’ve ever seen: Operation Gunrunner/Fast and Furious. Besides, if Murdoch is a key component of the vast right wing conspiracy I’m beholden to, he sucks at it: According to OpenSecrets.org, Donations by News Corp members favor Dems 2-1. Biggest recipient? That paragon of conservative virtue Barbara Boxer.

The Council Has Spoken: July 15, 2011

Congratulations to this week’s winners.

Council New Zeal -Judith LeBlanc: Top US “Peace” Activist and Communist Leader

Noncouncil: New Ledger- Gawker’s John Cook Attempts to Out CIA Agent Who Helped Kill Bin Laden

Full voting here.

Implanted Bombs Will End the TSA Charade

Having recently flown and participated in the kabuki theater that is the security screenings at airports at the same time that the TSA issued an alert warning about implanted bombs, I realized that such bombs would end the charade we have been subjected to over the past 10 years. In 2009 an attacker using a bomb inserted into his rectum blew himself up as he met a Saudi prince credited with Saudi Arabia’s anti-terror campaign.

Intelligence analysts have known for years that al-Qaeda has been attempting to recruit surgeons to implant bombs into the human bodies, but so far without success. Considering that doctors have joined al-Qaeda, AQ chief al-Zawahiri is one himself as was one of the attackers on the Glasgow airport on June 30, 2007, it is only a matter of time before a terror group acquires a person with the necessary skills to surgically implant a bomb that would be undetectable without exploratory surgery or an MRI. At that point terrorists will be able to attack at will, and the current TSA model will be obsolete.

This doesn’t mean that we will be defenseless. Both Israel and Northern Ireland have had effective security in place that doesn’t leave their citizens unprotected or sacrificing their rights. Behavioral profiling is a topic familiar to any beat cop. The fundamental fact of behavior profiling is that people committing a crime act differently than those who aren’t. Israeli airport security follows an “onion model” where travelers are checked at certain points while under observation the entire time they are at the airport.

The first layer of actual security that greets travellers at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport is a roadside check. All drivers are stopped and asked two questions: How are you? Where are you coming from?

“Two benign questions. The questions aren’t important. The way people act when they answer them is,” (Rafi Sela, the president of AR Challenges, a global transportation security consultancy) said.

Officers are looking for nervousness or other signs of “distress” — behavioural profiling. Sela rejects the argument that profiling is discriminatory.

“The word ‘profiling’ is a political invention by people who don’t want to do security,” he said. “To us, it doesn’t matter if he’s black, white, young or old. It’s just his behaviour. So what kind of privacy am I really stepping on when I’m doing this?”

The key aspect is behavior; the race of the person under observation is immaterial – as it should be. AQ has been actively recruiting in the West, and is especially interested in Caucasians, believing that a white person of European ancestry would arose less suspicion than someone of Pakistani origin. Behavior profiling would catch a white suburbanite with an implanted bomb in her breast just as easily as a Pakistani because both would act in unusual ways and respond differently when confronted by security.

One must have fewer, highly trained and professional security personnel instead of tens of thousands of poorly-trained screeners in place today. The TSA has grown into a huge, politically connected bureaucracy, and the first priority of any bureaucracy is to perpetuate itself. Implementing a behavior based model would require only a fraction of the number of people currently employed by the TSA, and most if not all lack the required skill-set to transition to a behavior based model. These people would not easily let go of their jobs; in fact one could argue that allowing the TSA to be created at all is one of George W. Bush’s greatest failures in his handling of the Global War on Terror. Institutional and political resistance against change would be huge, and would only melt under catastrophic circumstances (such as the detonation of a surgically implanted bomb resulting in the deaths of hundreds or more civilians). Next, the skill-set by agents required at domestic airports is the same required by soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other danger spots abroad. The military and civilian authorities would in effect be chasing after the same people. The best option would be for the military working with intelligence agencies to boost recruitment and then take over security of airports and sensitive installations – but that would fall afoul of America’s Posse Comitatus act. Even if this act was suspended due to crisis, it is doubtful Americans would put up with an armed forces presence on American soil for long. Most importantly such a change in tactics would require a change in the politically correct dogma that has infected our institutions, both political and increasingly, those charged with our security. Such changes don’t come easily to bureaucracies, if they even come at all.

Can it be fooled? No system is perfect, but neither is any potential terrorist. Terrorists can be trained, but there is no substitute for real-world experience in the field. Unfortunately for terrorists, each suicide bomber is “one and done”; he is either caught or he explodes, rather limiting the opportunity to learn from his experience. There are no “experienced suicide bombers” who could school terrorist recruits in the best ways to avoid suspicion while on a mission. Yes, their handlers will be able to pass along some information, but the best car thieves and murderers are the ones who jacked cars or killed someone before. Meanwhile the security institution using the behavioral profiling method would constantly gain experience as it caught suspects, giving it a distinct advantage in the race between security personnel and terrorists; that is, if the bureaucracy is minimized to allow itself to change.

Herbert Stein of the American Enterprise Institute famously quipped, “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.” As the number of complaints grow with the TSA and its ineffectiveness exposed, it is only a matter of time before the bureaucracy is disbanded. When it is, it will not mean the end of secure air travel in the United States, but its true beginning.

UPDATE: This article at Bloomberg strikes me as wishful thinking.

Hard as they may be to discover, bomb implants have one disadvantage for terrorists. They probably wouldn’t cause a big enough explosion to bring down a plane, the surgeons and consultants said.

The same tissues and skin that conceal the implant would muffle the impact, said Cathal Flynn, a San Diego-based consultant who headed security for the Federal Aviation Administration during President Bill Clinton’s administration.

Those same tissues and skin could also direct the blast. When the shoe bomber attempted to detonate the explosives in his shoes, he placed his feet against the body of the plane. A bomber with a bomb in her chest could place her body against the airplane’s hull, directing the blast towards the skin of the craft. I cannot prove the often cited figure of 50g of PETN being necessary to take down a plane, but the average breast implant size I’ve found on the web is 440g per implant. That’s nearly 2lbs of explosive a bomber could carry in her boobs. And that assumes the use of breast implants; an even larger bomb could be implanted in the belly of a man. In addition the bomb designer could think creatively, perhaps employing a thin ceramic shield behind the bomb that wouldn’t set off metal detectors but would act to shape the blast. A few grams of explosives might be absorbed by the body of the attacker, but not hundreds of grams.

The main difficulty of an implanted bomb is detonating it, but it’s not insurmountable especially when the cost – from the terrorists organization’s perspective – is low. It’s an engineering problem, and unfortunately for the traveling public, al Qaeda seems to have as many of those as the IEEE.

Help Illegal Immigrants in the USA: Close the Border

I recently heard of a business that is employing illegals and paying them sub-minimum wage. The owners even make them work everyday except one a month and threaten to fire them if they sit down or take a break at any time during the day. It’s an agricultural based business, and like many in rural America it is dependent on cheap labor. As far as I know it doesn’t force the people to work there (I’ve heard that at least one employee quit because of the working conditions and pay), but this information posed a dilemma to me, one that challenged my populist and libertarian instincts.

What is the ethical thing to do? Call ICE? Doing this would guarantee the illegals and their families would get deported. Now I may be a registered Re-thuglican, but I’m not heartless. The vast majority of illegals working here are hard working, honest folk (except for their complete disregard for America’s immigration laws), and alerting Immigration would hurt the workers more than their employer, who would most likely get a small fine if they received any punishment at all. The enterprise is based in one of the poorest counties in the state, and they do employ citizens (although they don’t treat them any better than the illegals.)

Should I do nothing and allow “slavery” to rise again in the South? Funny how that word gets abused almost as much as the “H” word (“Holocaust”) does. This isn’t slavery. Before the Civil War slaves could not leave their jobs; doing so could result in severe punishment and often their death. This business isn’t holding any of its workers behind barbed wire. Each is free to leave, and many do – usually involuntarily when the supervisor fires them. They are then replaced by others. In this area there are tens of thousands of illegals working the tobacco and corn fields with more flooding in daily.

And that’s the problem. Those of us who want to close the border to illegal immigration are often viewed as heartless, even un-American for our views. But those who support open borders and lax immigration rules never discuss who their policies hurt the most: the immigrants already here.

Consider that a worker at the agribusiness is fed up with working 29-30 days a month for $25 a day. His competition isn’t an American citizen; it is another illegal immigrant, perhaps a newly arrived one desperate for any type of wage to survive. If that person was still on the other side of the border, there would be much less competition for his job and the agribusiness would be forced to either improve his wages and working conditions, become more efficient and productive, or go out of business. But lax immigration would mean the continuation of a steady stream of workers willing to replace him, thereby guaranteeing a race to the bottom in wages and working conditions.

This is Adam Smith’s invisible hand at work, and indicative of how progressives who support “immigrants rights” often pave the road to hell with their good intentions. In order to improve the lot of the workers at the agribusiness, a call to ICE won’t do – unless it’s to demand they do their job to secure the border. In fairness to them, it’s not possible because the politics of the issue prevent them from doing that job. Preventing the agribusiness from checking documentation and immigration status of their employees will not help the workers, nor will any laws as long as the supply of workers from abroad continues. “Guest worker programs” may seem good in theory, but the fact that such programs guarantee wages and working conditions (and increase business expenses due to maintenance of records) will always make the option to hire illegal immigrants more attractive. Those guest workers would then find themselves in the same predicament that many low-skilled American citizens find themselves today: not skilled enough to demand better paying jobs, but more expensive than illegal immigrants.

The Left likes to lay claim to the issue of illegal immigration in the hope that the immigrants will follow in the footsteps of those newly arrived in the past who built the Democratic patronage machines in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and elsewhere. I suspect that their interests would decline if the illegal immigrants voted Republican after becoming citizens. It’s not a stretch: socially, Mexican families are much more conservative than typical Democratic households and have more in common with Republicans on issues such as gay marriage and abortion.

In order for the lot of such workers to improve, demand has to increase for their work and the only way that is going to happen is for everyone in the USA to start farms to boost demand for their labor or for the supply of labor from abroad to be cut off. Once shut off, workers will be able to demand higher wages and better working conditions because they could not be replaced so easily.

Over 120 years ago a big chunk of my ancestors arrived from Eastern Europe and did manual labor. Back then there were no minimum wages, no OSHA or other such regulation, yet they did okay. While they arrived legally, I don’t completely begrudge the illegals for wanting to improve the lot the way my ancestors did. But I don’t want them to be treated badly either. Anyone who wants to improve the lives of farm laborers should support closing the border. It’s the only viable solution to improve the lot of illegal immigrants and to force outfits like the one I’ve heard about to treat their employees better.

The Council Has Spoken: July 8, 2011

Congratulations to this week’s winners.

CouncilSimply Jews–-The story of a fanatic or why Alice Walker is sailing to Gaza

Noncouncil: Treppenwitz- Who, what, where, why and when?

Full voting here.

Standing on the Bones of My Ancestors

As the human race zooms towards the 7 billion mark, it is interesting to remember that our survival was never assured. In fact there is evidence that suggests that several times throughout its history our species almost became extinct, with as few as 26,000 individuals 1.2 million years ago. The myth that we all descended from a single woman in Africa may not be completely true, but it does highlight the truth that at certain bottlenecks in the past our species came close to dying out. Yet our ancestors managed to navigate through those dangerous times, surviving through skill, determination and of course luck.

Although I’m the youngest of six I am the family historian. Being the resident genealogist isn’t easy, especially when it has become imperative that I capture old stories and the names of people in old photographs before the eldest living members pass on. This task is made all the more difficult when people simply don’t care about the past. As my wife’s grandmother once told her before she became one of them, “Why do you want to know about all those old dead people for?” Maybe it’s because we recognize that what poetess and avant garde musician Laurie Anderson says is true, we die three times: First when our body dies, next when everyone we knew dies, and finally when the last person says our name. At least for family historians, our ancestors will never die because we repeat their names numerous times, searching for information about them, trying to understand their lives and the times in which they lived. Usually the dead refuse to speak and rarely give up their secrets. Such silence becomes an obsession only another historian can understand.

For 12 years I have searched for the parents of my great-grandfather, an Irishman with a French name, Maurice Kirwin. Over the years I have mapped out his residences, the various jobs he held, and the children he reared and sometimes buried. Although he started out humbly, by the time of his death in 1931 he had several children, grandchildren and even a smattering of great-grandchildren. Although I didn’t know how he was born, he died solidly middle class as a retired carpenter and home builder.

But I had no clue about his origins. He appears out of nowhere in a city directory in 1877 age 24 before the rest of his life is recorded in public records and censuses. I scoured online records for St. Louis in the 1860s and 1870s but could not find him. He consistently claimed he had been born on February 22, 1853 in Missouri, but in doubt I poured over emigration records from the 1850s finding nothing. He simply stepped out of the shadows of the past and became the patriarch of the family whose name I carry today and even passed down to my son. It isn’t much considering most everyone has a last name (Prince and Fabio are the exceptions that prove the rule), but the name Kirwin can trace its ancestry back to a long ago immigration from Celtic Spain to Celtic Ireland. It is considered one of the original 14 Tribes of Galway, but somewhere that link between Ireland and America was broken at Maurice.

As the years passed I began to suspect that the only way Maurice could appear in public records as an adult was to have been an orphan as a child, so I began to pursue that thread. Unfortunately it didn’t take me very far because orphanage records weren’t meant to be looked at by the future public. Some remain inaccessible except by court order even 150 years later; others have little helpful information – often simply a name and an arrival date. The orphanages in St. Louis in the 1850s were filled with children. Some had lost their parents to Yellow fever epidemics that had raged through the city. Others had been dropped off by parents who could no longer afford to feed them. As I explored the records, it was difficult to restrain my imagination from conjuring up the horrors each entry must have felt walking through the entryway into a children’s home. Although I assume they had escorts when they crossed the threshold I have no doubt that they were alone when they entered.

Finally in frustration I decided to contact the St. Louis Catholic archdiocese. I told the pleasant but harried director of records my situation, and she promised to investigate for me. But before ending the call she asked an important question: Had I investigated everyone buried along with my Maurice? I had, but I humored her as she directed me to the cemetery website and plot in Maurice’s name. I had all the Kirwins buried in the cemetery for years, but the search came up with a result I hadn’t expected because I had never searched by a specific plot. Searching within Maurice’s plot there were several names I had missed – his granddaughters buried using their married names. I knew of them, although I hadn’t realized they had been buried with their grandparents. But I didn’t recognize one name: Margaret Savage.

Margaret Savage had been buried in 1909 at the age of 85 in the plot purchased by Maurice. I did the math and I realized that she was the right age to be his mother – but she could still be an aunt or even a family friend. Over the next two weeks I began researching Margaret Savage. As happens so often, I ended up spending a lot of research time on a Margaret Savage who was born the exact same month as “Maurice’s Margaret” but who left St. Louis and led a child-filled but quiet life in northeast Missouri. Such genealogical “goose chases” are common, and I’m on another one right now with an ancestor of the Wife, but it is impossible to know whether one is chasing poultry or the Truth until the very end of the chase.

After wasting time on the Margaret Savage records I decided to research Margaret Kirwin. I found exactly one record: a marriage entry by a priest certifying that on October 31, 1857 he had married Margaret Kirwin and John Savage.

Suddenly events began to unfold quickly. I searched John Savage in the 1860 census and found him, Margaret Savage, Christopher Savage, Maurice Savage and Hannah Savage. In the 1870 census I found no John but did find Margaret Savage, Maurice Savage, Hannah Savage, Anna Savage. The dates were exact; Maurice Savage was 7 in 1860, 17 in 1870 – as they should have been. In 1874 I found the death record of Christopher Kirwin – the exact same age as Christopher Savage, and in 1877 Maurice appears on his own as a Kirwin. Maurice wasn’t an orphan after all. He had been documented as a Savage.

During a visit to my family in St. Louis, a trip to the county library at first yielded nothing. I had only minutes left to devote to researching the dead before the obligations of the living took precedence, so I stopped searching old newspapers on microfilm for obituaries and went upstairs where the special collections are held. As I reached the top of the stairs I noticed a cabinet filled with microfilms of Missouri records from the 1850s, so I asked one of the librarians whether there were records that hadn’t been digitized. She explained that before the 1860s religious records were better, and after listening to a rambling description of my situation, handed me two rolls of microfilm containing Irish parish records.

The first one was a dud, but as I scrolled through the second and the chronology of baptisms rolled past, 12 years of searching came to an abrupt end. Two weeks after Maurice had been born, the priest in the largest Irish catholic church in the city, St. Patricks, had baptized him, and noted his father’s name, his mother’s name including maiden name, as well as the names of his sponsors. Maurice’s story was complete and could finally be told.

Thomas Kirwin and his wife Margaret arrived in St. Louis from Ireland with their infant son Christopher around 1851 (Records state Christopher was born in Ireland, and both the 1860 and 1870 censuses give his birth year as 1849). Two years later Maurice is born and baptized. Two years after Maurice a daughter is born, Hannah. But the little family would soon be ripped apart. In September 1855 Thomas dies of cholera, leaving Margaret with three young children (the death record appeared spontaneously on my ancestry.com family tree as soon as I joined Thomas to it). Just over two years later, John Savage marries Margaret and gives these three children a home (marriage record and 1860 census). In 1864 Margaret bears him a daughter, but he dies before the 1870 census, and for the rest of her days Margaret is known as Margaret Savage, widow of John (Gould’s city directories of various years). Then at the age of 85 she dies in an “accident” according to the burial notice in the St. Louis Globe Democrat, and is buried by her son in a plot he had originally purchased for his daughter, and where she and his beloved wife Ellen lay (Ellen’s obituary). Maurice wouldn’t join his family until burying several others in the plot including his young grandson, my uncle, who left my grandfather racked with guilt for his entire life because he drank the money his wife had given him to buy him new shoes. After he was buried, my grandmother was laid to rest there seven years later, and then the plot was forgotten, more easily so because Maurice never got around to buying a stone marker. My family moved southward out of the city and were buried in other cemeteries, and I was probably the first to visit it in decades when I sought it out and on a hot June afternoon stood atop the bones of my ancestors, including those of Maurice.

Kirwin family plot
Unmarked resting place for seven of my ancestors

Many things could have happened to my great-grandfather at that treacherous time soon after his father’s death. His mother could have succumbed to the temptation of leaving him and his siblings at one of the local orphanages. John Savage could have refused to care for them – as a maternal grandfather had refused to care for my grandmother’s nieces orphaned by the Flu Epidemic in 1918. He claimed he couldn’t afford to care for them, but he could afford enough booze to slap around my mother and grandmother to the point they hid in the closet when he came home from the local tavern on the weekends.

But Margaret stayed with her children and John opened his home to them. Because of their actions my great-grandfather survived and by all appearances had a successful life. Then the name was passed to my grandfather, who passed it to my father who passed it to me, and in a delivery room in Kyoto Japan on beautiful Autumn afternoon several years ago I passed it to my son. That afternoon was truly special; my wife passed along her name to him as well so our son has two great names with rich histories that I am gradually piecing together for him. I’ve even had the distinct pleasure of tracing her heritage back to the Norman Conquest of England, a legacy that my son now carries forward.

Although I am now more proud of my name than ever, I would be equally as proud to have been named Savage in honor of the man who protected my ancestors at a very perilous time. He is a complete stranger to me whose kindness over 150 years ago is still apparent today. And wherever he is, I hope that he knows that I appreciate it.

As for Margaret, a note of thanks is also due her. I will never know the details of her life. I can find her name written by a long dead census taker’s hand through the waning decades of the 19th century, but beyond that all I have is conjecture. I can imagine what it must have been like to be a widowed woman with three children under the age of seven in a new land that didn’t think highly of her nationality let alone her gender. She must have been extraordinary to keep her children secure as she did what she had to do including finding a second husband just over two years after losing her first. Then a decade or so later she would again be widowed and remain so for the next 40 years. I don’t know what role she played in the life of my grandfather who would have known her for over twenty years, but Maurice evidently thought enough of her to include her in his family’s burial plot. All it would have taken would have been a brief conversation between my grandfather and father, then another to me and I would have known. Instead I am left staring at handwritten public records, straining to hear whispers from the past.

The Council Has Spoken: July 1, 2011

Congratulations to this week’s winners.

CouncilThe Noisy Room-The Fascist Stealth of Agenda 21

Noncouncil:Right, Wing Nut- Sarah Palin Loves The Jews More Than The Jews Love Themselves

Full voting here.