Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Dream of Cavalry, I: Galloping

People dream of flying, and of going fast. In childhood, there were those golden days when we could just run on the green, or pedal our bikes as fast as we could as we coasted down hills towards improvised jumps. As teenagers, we got to do the same thing with roaring gas engines, enjoying their incredible responsiveness on the twisting curves.

And everyone who is reading this now actually survived that pleasure. I know, amazing, right? The exhilarating feeling that comes from going as fast or faster than the ground will support is pretty universal.  
 I have, for example, a clear image in my mind of what the turn-of-the-century "electric city" was like, one that might  bring home my mangled analogy between Antwerp and its ring fortresses, and London with its ring airbases. I just so want to write about it in a way that brings together the sayettries of Lille and siege  of 1708 and the gaslit age and the Battle of Jutland* and Fourier transforms and the Breech Loader, 18 Pounder. There's a reason that the manuscript that I've (mostly) written about these subjects runs to over 2000 pages, and it's not because that's what I think the readers want. It's because I'm going too fast. Discipline, Erik, discipline.

Or maybe there's too much discipline, sometimes. Sieges may be won by the triumph of method, but there are times when  plodding is its own form of deception. That's my main point in this posting, which is caught schizophrenically between a case of someone being wrong on the Internet** and my desire to get into a discussion of cavalry, speed, and the landscape. I've done some research in the lesser point, and need to dig up my work on the second, which will take some time. So in the interest of economising my own time, I'm going to try to segue from one to the other. I gather that it's not so much whether you clear the fence as that you're willing to try. 

Now, I'm not saying that the Birthers were appalling, mind you, So apologies to Erik Loomis if he notices or cares but in the interest of getting all historical about Birtherism, he links to this the site, which lets an expert (Philip Payne) execute misdirection by plodding. Consider that none of us disagree that Amos Harding (b. 1764-d. 1841) was Black, because all of us are black per the ridiculous One Drop Rule, or that he went ethnogenesis as an American in this little episode that I like to call "the American Revolution." And I'm not waving my hand at probabilities either, since Warren G. Freaking Harding conceded the point of his non-White physiognomy himself. (So did the GOP, when it used the accepted "Romanesque" codeword for Indian ancestry, but that's by the by, and check this link out.) The salience of the matter is solely that Amos Harding's particular great-grandson, Warren, had the non-issue emerge as an election issue in 1920. Election. You know, when swift-boating happens. And yet Professor Payne manages to write an entire post on the accusations that manages to avoid mentioning the Committee to Elect James M. Cox.*** Instead, the whole thing becomes horrid ooze from beneath the foundation pavings of American civilisation dug up and flung at us by a single crazy professor. 

Sorry, but that ain't gonna fly.  Check out a good book on the subject if you're interested in the question of Warren Harding's race and the election of 1920. In fact, it could even be a longer book, but it leaves out key details like a prize fight booked for the slightly-down-at-heels town of Toledo, Ohio on the 4th of July long weekend of 1919. 

See, the thing is, boxing was in the doldrums in 1919. College football, now that was a sport. Harvard was on top, having seen off the challenge of Jim Thorpe and his Carlisle Indians. Sure, to some, the Crimson Tide had a few too many vicious giants inclined to intimidate their way to victory, but if a good big (White) guy beats a good little (Indian) guy, that's just the way the ball bounces. It's going to be a few years yet before Harvard gets such a heaping serving of karma that it retreats from competition entirely.**** Still, I'd call football the Republican sport and boxing the Democratic one. No wonder that Governor Cox decided to let the Toledo fight go ahead.  

(Don't blink. Kid Blackie lands the decisive punch at 0:04

Oops! That's a guy who happens to be "Cherokee on both sides" dishing out one of the most vicious beatings in boxing's history to the guy who beat Jack Johnson in a fixed fight. Just as Warren Harding is about to inflict an epic electoral beatdown on his cross-state rival. There's all kinds of stories about how Jack Dempsey soaked his fists in lye to "harden" them, but, as far as I can tell, they just made him even more popular. Hugely more popular. Jack Dempsey saved American boxing, and perhaps the American star system, and he did so by beating the original "Great White Hope." Bizarre.

It's bizarre. When Johnson won the title in 1912, Representative Seaborn Roddenberry of Georgia responded by proposing an anti-miscegenation amendment to the United States Constitution. I don't which part is more eye-popping: someone proposing a "one drop" anti-miscegenation constitutional amendment (oops; you can't get married, because your great-great-grandfather fooled around!), or the contrast between Seaborn and the only other Rodenberry who must spring to mind when you read that. Eight years later, as far as I can parse the electoral returns, Governor Cox's swiftboating campaign left Senator Harding more popular in the border states. 

Either sports are colour-blind and the Wilson Administration's unpopularity broke the "solid South," both of which I doubt, or there's something more than meets the eye to the culture of Jim Crow. And that's all I'm going to be saying about that. I'm not nearly the social critic I'd need to be to take that on. I'm just galloping through the internet this week, hot on the scent of something that's probably going to turn out to be inedible to start with. 

My favourite seventeenth century manual on fox hunting stresses that it is a scientific sport. You can't just ride through the countryside pell-mell after a fox, leaping every obstacle as you go. You have to ride pell-mell and be constantly aware of the lay of the land and subtle signs that the scent track isn't going where you expect it to go. Science tells us that spider webs are an indication of damp ground that won't hold a scent; so watch your hounds closely. If they back and hesitate for a second, before following the ridge between the hollows, look for spider webs downslope. That's a sign that the fox has thrown the hounds off the scent by going down into the damp.You can't catch a fox without speed and attention to detail. 

That's the cavalry spirit: charge recklessly, and mindfully. You have to master the terrain. Sometimes, you have to put aside your diffidence and claim your authority. I'll leave it there for this week, and come back next week and talk about the Kangxi Emperor, optics, surveying the land, artillery and horses.

*Down to forty bucks on Amazon, so I bought a copy. And then, since I was there, I bought this and this and this. I think it might be time to admit that I have a problem.
**Woops. per Internet tradition, I was supposed to link here.
***Worse, if you check the link out, you will see that Governor Cox is one of those notorious press barons that we often leave to shape their own personal history at our own risk. Just fight the power, Professor Payne.
****You were expecting a reference to Jeremy Lin there, right? Done. Now, about a midwestern Catholic Irish university that actually predates American Catholic Irish and which is dedicated to the Corn Maiden. Er, I mean, Virgin Mother....

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