Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Well, look at that. I've been blogging for eight years.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Arizona on the edge, or over it

Everyone thinks their state legislature is the most embarrassing in the country and that the rest of America must be pointing and laughing at them whenever the lege is in session. Most of the time, no one notices what their own legislature is up to, let alone what other states are up to. It usually takes something utterly moronic, like a an anti-evolution bill or a statewide dress code banning droopy pants, to get the attention of the rest of the country. However, this year has been a banner year for bad legislation and bad behavior by legislators. Right-wing extremists have taken over half of the legislatures in the land and bizarre statements by confused local radicals get regular national coverage on the nightly news.

This brings us to Arizona's Russell Pearce. Pearce first blipped onto the national radar screen last year as the author of Arizona's hyper-profiling law SB 1070. He followed up on that bill by proposing one of the first "birthright" laws to limit the 14th Amendment, which automatically grants citizenship to all children born in the United States. In other states, Republican have proposed their own legislation that imitates Pearce's two odious bills. The second bill besides besides building on the anti-immigrant bigotry popular in parts of the right also builds on a revival of anti-federal, states' rights sentiment being voiced in the same circles. Pandering to the new states' rights movement has resulted in Republicans proposing nullification laws, speaking favorably of secession, and embracing a strange constitutional interpretation that has come to be called "tentherism." The tenthers claim that the 10th Amendment essentially prevents the federal government from doing anything that isn't very specifically mentioned in the body of the Constitution. In trying to stay ahead of the tenther and birthright movements, Pearce yesterday moved into the realm of militia-style constitutional nonsense by claiming there is no such thing as US citizenship.
Now U.S. history, most of us weren’t around when the Constitution was written. But you remember we kind of existed before Congress, the states. We-we-we created the Congress, we created the federal government, by compact. Do you know what existed before the Congress, the states? Do you know, you’re not a citizen of the United States; you’re a citizen of a sovereign state. The fifty sovereign states makes up United States. We’re citizens of those sovereign states. It is not a delegated authority. It’s an inherent authority that states have over the federal government. [applause] It’s about time somebody gets it right!

You're going to have to look hard to find a constitutional authority to back him up on this. My passport was issued by the government of the United States and very clearly states in several places that I am a citizen of the United States. The state of Washington is not mentioned in my passport though there is a space where I could mention it as part of my mailing address.

Those who believe as Pearce does could say that my passport lies since it was issued by the wicked federal government. Okay, let's go back to the Constitution itself. The phrase "Citizen of the United States" appears three times in the body of the Constitution (when setting forth the requirements for Representative, Senator, and President). The phrase is not "Citizen of one of the United States." It clearly means that we are citizens of an entity called "the United States." The word Citizen (always capitalized) is also used when describing residents of individual states, but the implication is that we are citizens of the United States as well as citizens of the constituent states.

Five amendments deal with the rights of citizens (the 14th, 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th). All of them use the phrase "citizens of the United States" to describe the people that are are the subject of the amendment. The 14th Amendment--the one most hated by the anti-immigrant wing of the far right--states that all "persons born or naturalized in the United States" are "citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside." this, again, makes clear the we are citizens both of individual states and of a larger entity called the United States.

Pearce's denial of US citizenship sounds suspiciously like "sovereign citizenship," a legal theory popular inside the militia movement. Proponents of "sovereign citizenship" deny the very legitimacy of the US government. The list of issues close to the hearts of followers of this ideology will be familiar to anyone who has looked at the tea party movement. They claim the income tax is illegitimate, the Federal Reserve is illegal, they want to repeal the 17th amendment (direct election of Senators), they want to return to the gold standard, they believe that there is a suppressed "real" 13th Amendment, they hate the federal court system and judges in general, and they think there is just something wrong with the 14th Amendment. This is very clear in their language when they draw a distinction between sovereign citizens and "14th Amendment citizens."
Among the various subjects of energetic sovereign citizen revisionism, perhaps none is more important than the 14th Amendment. Ratified in 1868, the Amendment had several aims, including the guaranteeing of United States citizenship for the ex-slaves. But to sovereign citizens it did much more; they claim that before its ratification, virtually no one was a "citizen of the United States." One would previously have been a citizen of the republic of Ohio or of some other state; only residents of Washington, D.C., or federal territories were citizens of the United States. The 14th Amendment created an entirely new class of citizens, they argue, one that anybody, theoretically, could voluntarily join.

But to become a citizen of the United States was to willingly subject oneself to the complete authority of the federal and state governments; clearly, no one would want to do this. The government, therefore, tricked people into entering into its jurisdiction and that of the "corporate" state government by having them sign contracts with it. The trick was that people did not even realize they were signing contracts: these included items like Social Security cards, drivers' licenses, car registrations, wedding licenses or even, as [Oklahoma City bomber] Terry Nichols noted, hunting licenses and zip codes.

Pearce, like many Republican politicians over the last two years, is rushing farther and farther to the right in an effort to stay ahead of his increasingly radicalized constituents. It's an ugly spiral. His rush to the right, legitimizes radical ideas and encourages his less radical followers to move farther right, which forces him farther right, and so on. Pearce has no moved beyond the realm of being merely a very conservative politician into outright sedition against the government. With his birthright law, he does not use the legal process of amending the Constitution to get rid of a part he dislikes; he is attempting to use the legislative process of one state to override the Constitution. This is wrong on two accounts. First of all, laws cannot void a part of a constitution; they must operate within the parameters set by the appropriate constitution. Secondly, the laws and constitutions of the various states are subordinate to the US Constitution.

I'm not intimate enough with Arizona politics to know if Pearce is a true believer in sovereign citizenship or just a demagogue. If the former, by renouncing his US citizenship, he is unfit to hold public office an might not be legally allowed to hold office in Arizona. If the latter, we can hope that the voters of Arizona will finally say enough! and pull back from the brink. Either way, Pearce is playing a very dangerous game and anyone who follows him should think twice before going any further.

Sidebar: Most Americans, and even Arizonans, are probably not aware that the Territory of Arizona was originally established by the Confederate States of America, not the United States. At the time of Southern secession in 1860/61, the entire Southwest was administered as the Territory of New Mexico. The term Arizona was generally understood to mean only the part of the Territory south of the Gila River, the land brought into the Union by the Gadsen Purchase. The miners and settlers in Arizona felt isolated from the traditional centers of New Mexico around Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Taos. Several times they petitioned the federal government for their own territorial government, but were turned down on account of their tiny population. One curious feature of the proposals was that they all divided the New Mexico Territory into north and south parts, not east and west like the current states.

Having been rebuffed by the Washington government, the proponants of self-rule for Arizona held a convention in March 1861 and voted to join the Confederacy. The fact that the War Department had begun removing troops from the western territories to fight in the East only added to the feelings of Arizonans that Union government didn't care about their needs. The Confederates were quick to take advantage of this situation. In July 1861, a small force under Col. John Baylor, invaded New Mexico from El Paso and defeated the remaining federal forces in a battle near Mesilla. Four days later, Baylor proclaimed the Confederate Territory of Arizona with himself as governor. The borders of the territory included all of the New Mexico territory up to the thirty-fourth parallel.

Most of the Civil War in the southwest was fought on the Rio Grande. First the Confederate army fought its way north, almost to the Colorado border conquering most of the New Mexico Territory. Beginning in April 1862, Union troops mounted a counter offensive and had pushed the Confederates back to Texas by late summer. The fate of Arizona proper paralleled the main campaign. Captain Sherod Hunter organized a militia, the Arizona Rangers, to maintain order around Tucson, but in May 1862, a small invasion force from California was able to brush him aside and reconquer Arizona for the Union.

The legal fiction of a Confederate Arizona lived longer than the physical reality. The Confederate Congress passes a bill formally organizing the territory in January 1862. The next month, Jefferson Davis signed the bill and a representative from Arizona, Granville Oury, was seated in the Confederate Congress. After the territory was reabsorbed into the Union and into New Mexico, a government in exile was set up in Texas and remained in operation till the end of the war.

Despite the fact that they were kind of busy fighting for their lives, the federal government learned the lesson of Arizonan dissatisfaction. One month after Jefferson Davis had offically created the Confederate Territory of Arizona, the US House passed a bill organizing a federal Territory of Arizona consisting of the western half of the New Mexico Territory. Arizona remained a territory for a half century, its citizens being disappointed at having their petitions for statehood turned down as often as their petitions for territoryhood had been. When statehood was finally inevitable, Arizonans had to overcome one last obstacle, Republican Senators who wanted to re-merge the territory with New Mexico to prevent Arizona from electing any more progressive Democrats to Congress. Statehood was finally signed on 14 February 1912, the fiftieth anniversary of Jefferson Davis' proclamation of the Confederate Territory.

Far right extremists, like Russell Pearce, regularly appeal to the themes of Neo-Confederatism. States' rights, nullification, an idiosyncratic vision of independence and self-determination, and defiance of central authority are all part of their rhetorical repertoire. Thus it is pleasantly ironic that these messages are now being turned against them. This month, Arizonans living south of the Gila--the original Arizona--have launched a formal effort to secede and form a new state. They claim as one of their main reasons for undertaking this measure Russell Pearce's "flagrant defiance of the realities of existing constitutional law and the rights of those who live within our borders."

Whatever else they might be, Arizona politics are never boring.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Priorities, priorities

In the middle of the worst economic slump since the Great Depression with millions losing their jobs and homes, the Republicans made huge gains in Congress and in the state houses by promising to do -- something. So far their priorities seem to be:
  • Cutting corporate taxes
  • Creating enough barriers to abortion to make it functionally impossible to get one
  • Union busting
  • Increasing unemployment by laying off civil servants and teachers
  • Forcing creationism into the schools
  • Cutting social services for the poor
  • Undermining Social Security and Medicare
  • Defunding public education at all levels
  • Stopping the construction of passenger rail systems
  • Dismantling public health systems
  • Saving the incandescent lightbulb
  • Preventing any action from being taken on climate change
  • Ending public broadcasting
  • Giving governors dictatorial powers in their states
  • Anything that will piss off environmentalists

What did I miss?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Top Republican defends government pensions

The top Republican in question is the ultraconservative Rep. Steve King (R-IA) and the pension is, predictably, his own. In an interview on C-SPAN, King said non-Congressional government employees could collect a good pension, but played down Congressional pensions as "not that great" and "slim pickin's, indeed." Let's look at the numbers.

If King were to retire at the end of this term, he would be entitled to a pension of $29,580 per year, based on his ten years of service. Congress has a 401k program that deducts a mere 1.4% from his paycheck. His Social Security benefits would be somewhere around $28,000 per year. He would be entitled to use the taxpayer funded healthcare system Medicare for his health needs. He is also entitled to a pension for his years in the Iowa state house. All of these government retirement programs, except the 401k, get cost of living increases. The total of all his government retirement benefits will be over $60,000 per year. Very few retirees have an income like that.

Right off the bat, King engages in a bait-and-switch over those numbers. He states that a lifetime civil servant would get a bigger pension than a congressperson who only stayed in the system for ten years. Okay, that's true enough. It's also true that a lifetime civil servant would get a bigger pension than another civil servant who only stayed in the system for ten years. Also, a member of congress who spent their life in Washington would get a bigger pension than a congressperson who only stayed in the system for ten years. It's a "so what" observation that has nothing to do with whether or not his pension is generous or not.

Hidden behind that smokescreen and his folksy ways is the simple fact that his pension will be much better than that of the average civil servant. Three numbers are plugged into the formula to calculate a federal pension. The first, is the average of the worker's three highest paid years, usually the last three years they worked. King makes $174,000 per year, which is far more than the vast majority of civil servants will ever make. The second number is the number of years of government service, the subject of King's previously mentioned irrelevance. The third number is the most important. The pension of an average civil servant is 1.1% of the highest three year average multiplied by their number of years in government employ. However, for members of congress and their staffs, the multiplier is 1.7%. That is to say, Steve King will get a pension 55% larger than that of any other civil servant who made the same pay and worked the same number of years.

Rep. Steve King wants us to think his pension is just fine because it's "slim pickin's, indeed." Most government employees would love to have his slim pickin's and most of the rest of us can only dream of it. Republican lawmakers all over the country are trying to tell us that over paid public employees with their living salary pensions are cause of all our woes. They divide the working class and tell non-government employees that they need to drag other workers down to a lowest common denominator. When it's their own benefits being questioned, they story is "move along, nothing to look at here."

For those who want to know exactly what King said, here is the video and my transcription.

HOST: Here’s a story in today’s Washington post, coming to us from the McClatchy Tribune Services, with pension plans under attack, congress’s own benefits are hefty, lawmakers can retire with generous packages with less buy-in.

KING: Um. The response for that I guess is what you’re wondering. Um, you know, the packages we have today are not the packages that many people think we have. And I believe it’s five years to be vested in a retirement plan at all. The federal employees who make a career out of this their--their plan is--is one that accumulates over their working career of their lifetime, and the average time here in congress is, as I recall, I have to go back to check this, the fact today, is about 10.8 years--time in Congress. The pension plans for an average member of Congress aren't that great. The healthcare plan here--we contribute to that in the same fashion as other federal employees. There's still the virus of the rumor going on since the eighties that says members don't contribute to Social Security. Well, we do. We have done so since the eighties and we're on the same plan here as the other federal employees. So, it's not that great and if I were going to retire off of what’s here--and this is by the beginning of my ninth year--it would be a pretty slim pickin's, indeed...

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Tabbert's sea-mammoth

Sweden's rise as a major European power was abruptly ended in 1709, when an army led by King Charles XII was defeated by the army of Peter the Great at Poltava in far-away Ukraine. Charles, badly wounded, barely escaped by dashing south into Turkish territory. The majority of his army, their escape cut off by Russian cavalry, surrendered and became prisoners of war. Somewhat ironically, this national tragedy for Sweden, and personal tragedy for the prisoners and their families, turned out to be a bonanza for European science. When the prisoners returned to Sweden, they brought back information about lands rarely visited by literate Europeans. The prisoners solved some scientific mysteries, created some new ones, and, for others, added new layer to the mystery without solving them. In the last category was the enigmatic beast known by the name of mammoth.

One of the many, many injustices of war is the uneven treatment of prisoners. Officers are almost never treated as badly as enlisted men. The prisoners of Poltava were no exception. The common soldiers were marched off to labor in the frozen swamps of the Neva delta building Peter's new capitol city. For them, captivity was brutal and many died before the final peace was signed and they could be freed. Their officers were exiled to Tobolsk, the capitol of Siberia, and surrounding areas. Once they arrived in their places of exile, the Swedish officers were allowed considerable freedom. The highest officers were treated as honored guests and lived in the homes of the local political elite. Lower officers were allowed freedom of movement in the district, but left to their own devices to make a living. Many of them became ivory carvers.

The state of war between Sweden and Russia lingered on for twelve years after the Battle of Poltava. Swedish officers became a permanent fixture in Tobolsk. Siberia had never seen so many educated men. Once it became clear that they would not be going home any time soon, the officers busied themselves learning about their new home. Curiosity and boredom were their main motives, but gathering intelligence for Sweden played a role, too. Various officers collected information about the geology, resources, history, anthropology, languages, and natural history of the remote parts of Russia. Some of the educated Swedes turned to teaching. Voltaire tells us that they were so highly esteemed that the great families of Moscow sent their children to Tobolsk to be taught by them. When Peter realized what a resource he had in the Swedish officers, he hired many of them satisfy his restless curiosity. When the Treaty of Nystad was finally signed in 1721, formally ending hostilities and freeing the Swedish officers to return home, Peter asked some of them to stay and continue working for him. Most politely refused.

At the meeting of the Swedish Literary Society (formerly the Royal Society of Sciences) held on December 14, 1722 in Uppsala, the society's founder Erik Benzelius exhibited a drawing that he had received from Baron Leonard Kagg, an officer just returned from Siberia. Kagg had told Benzelius that the drawing, labeled "Behemoth" and "Mehemot," was of the mammoth. The mammoth was something of a mystery in 1722. A little over thirty years before, ivory had begun to trickle into Europe from Siberia, the source of which was a creature called "mamant" or "mammot." In 1722, there were only a half dozen published accounts that mentioned the creature. None of the writers had seen a live mammoth and drew on hearsay to speculate about what kind of animal it was. All except one of those writers spoke of the ivory being dug from the ground where the mammoth beast lived. All of the writers, again except one, believed the mammoth was an elephant-like creature, but were at a loss to explain how elephants came to be in Siberia unless their corpses had been washed there by the Flood and had laid frozen in the earth ever since. These accounts all mentioned that the non-Russian Siberian natives believed the mammoth was a still-living subterranean creature that died when it was exposed to surface air. The one account that disagreed with the others was that of the Jesuit Philippe Avril who had been told that the Siberians hunted live sea-mammoths on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. The Swedish Literary Society was happy to get any new information that might clear up the nature of the mammoth. But the mystery was not to be solved that easily.

The drawing Kagg brought was of a animal with a cow-like body, long horns twisted around each other, a lion's tail, and large feet with long, curved claws. The drawing came with the following description:
The length of this animal, called Behemot, is 50 Russian ells [29 meters or 69 feet]; the height is not known, but a rib being 5 arshin long [3.55 m or 11.66 ft], it may be estimated. The greatest diameter of the horn is half of an arshin [35 cm or 14 in], the length slightly above four; the grinders like a square brick; the foreleg from the shoulder to the knee 1 3/4 arshin long [124 cm or 4 ft], and at the narrowest part a quarter in diameter. The hole in which the marrow lies is so big that a fist may be inserted, otherwise the legs bear no proportion to the body, being rather short. The heathens living by the River Obi state that they have seen them floating in this river as big as a "struus," i.e. a vessel which the Russians use. This animal lives in the earth, and dies as soon as it comes into the air.

The Behemoth of Siberia.

Society members Olaus Rudbeck and Petrus Martin thought that the animal was a sea creature. They supported their opinion with the fact that several returning prisoners had mentioned dead mammoths mostly being found on the banks of rivers and near the Arctic Ocean. Rudbeck pointed out the curious detail in the drawing that the animal had both claws and horns. No other mammal they knew of had both. The Society decided to write to Kagg to find out how he had obtained the drawing and if he could give them any other information about it. The minutes of the meeting end with the statement, "There is a description about this Mehemot in Capt. Müller's account of the Ostiaks."

Captain Johann Bernhard Müller was captured after the defeat at Poltava and sent to Tobolsk along with the other Swedish officers. In 1712, Tsar Peter hired Müller to travel among the Ostiaks (now known as Khanty) along the Ob River between Tobolsk and the Arctic Ocean. Müller completed his report four years later and sent it to St. Petersburg with a flattering dedication to Tsarina Catherine. Peter was so pleased with the report that he allowed it to be published abroad even before Müller was allowed to leave the country. The report was published in Berin in 1720, in English the following year, and in most of the other major European languages before the end of the decade.

Müller's description of the mammoth, which he calls "mamant," appears at the beginning of the report as part of a description of the resources of Siberia. He uses the word mamant to describe just the ivory. It is worth quoting at length, both because it shows the extreme rumors then in circulation regarding the mammoth, and because it is so entertaining.
There is a Curiosity in Siberia, no where else to met with in any Part of the World, for ought I know. This is what the Inhabitants call Mamant, which is found in the Earth in several places, particularly in sandy Ground. It looks like Ivory both as to Colour and Grain. The common Opinion of the Inhabitants is that they are real Elephants Teeth, and have lain buried since the universal Deluge. Some of our Countrymen think it to be the Ebur fossile, and consequently a Product of the Earth, which was likewise my Opinion for a good while. Others again maintain that they are the Horns of a live huge Beast, which lives in Morasses and subterraneous Caves, subsisting by the Mud, and working it self by the Help of its Horns through the Mire and the Earth; but when it chances to meet with sandy Ground, the Sands rowling after it so close, that by reason of its Unweildines, it cannot turn itself again, it sticks fast at last and perishes. I have spoke to many Persons, who averred to me for the greatest Truth, that beyond the Beresowa, they saw such Beasts in Caves of the high Mountains there, which are monstrous according to their Description, being four or five Ells high [2 m or 6-7 ft], and about three Fathoms long, of a greyish Coat, a long Head, and a very broad Forehead, on both sides of which just above the Eyes, they say, stand the foresaid Horns, which it can move, and lay cross-ways over each other. In walking it is said to be able to stretch it self to a great Length, and also to contract it self into a short Compass. Its Legs are, as to Bigness, like those of a Bear.

Müller went on to discuss whether mammoth ivory is real ivory or some mineral (Ebur fossile) that merely looks like ivory. He was inclined toward the latter opinion, but admitted that stories of the ivory being found with bloody bones argued for the former. In either case, he utterly rejected the idea that it came from elephants killed in the Flood: "the Notion that these are real Elephants Teeth, cannot be supported by any probable Argument." Müller's mammoth was much smaller than Kagg's, but matched it in other respects, such as the horns being mounted on the forehead. Müller is the only source that mentions live mammoths living in the mountains or it having an inchworm-like ability to change length.

The Society took up the question of the mammoth several times through the course of the next year. On January 11, Martin reported that he had carefully examined the works of zoology, but could find no sea animal like the one in Kagg's drawing though, in his opinion, it resembled the Nile hippopotamus. Benzelius announced that a Lt. Col. Schönström would be sending them a complete tusk for their examination when he returned from Siberia. At the next meeting, a letter was read from the linguist Johan Sparfvenfelt concerning the relation between the words "mammont" and "Behemoth." Finally, on February 15, Benzelius was able to report back to the Society with Kagg's answers to their questions. Unfortunately, most of his answers were "I don't know." Kagg wrote Benzelius that he had received the drawing from one Captain Tabbert and that he, Kagg, had no firsthand knowledge of mammoths. Although Tabbert had returned from Siberia by that time, there is no indication in the Society journals for 1723 that they made any effort to contact him.

Petrus Martin thought Tabbert's mammoth resembled a hippopotamus, an observation that makes more sense when you know that they believed the hippo to be a carnivorous monster. This 1681 illustration from Hiob Ludolf's Historia Aethiopica not only characterizes the hippo as a ferocious beast and also identifies it as the Biblical Behemoth.

Captain Tabbert was Philipp Johann Tabbert von Strahlenberg*, another captive officer who had made good use of his time in Siberia. Tabbert spent his early years of his captivity working for the director of mines and was allowed to travel and collect geographic information. The map he eventually produced was a tremendous improvement over previous maps of Northeast Asia and the first to use the Ural Mountains as a border between Europe and Asia. He followed up his map by collecting comparative lexicons of thirty-two Siberian languages, tracing pictographs in Central Asia, and he wrote the first description of the psychoactive properties of magic mushrooms (Amanita muscaria). As many of his fellow prisoners were employed in ivory carving, he would have been familiar with mammoth tusks from the earliest days of his captivity, but it was a trip he made at the end of his captivity that was most important to Tabbert's understanding of mammoths.

During the summer of 1720, a gloomy German doctor named Daniel Gottlieb Messerschmidt arrived in Tobolsk on a mission from the Tsar to conduct a survey of medicinal plants in Siberia. His written instructions also directed him to gather "all the curiosities to be found in the region of Siberia, including objects of antiquity, pagan idols, [and] large mammoth bones...." With his wide ranging interests, Peter was, of course, aware of the mysterious mammoth. In his efforts to find new sources of revenue to pay for his wars and new capitol city, he had declared a royal monopoly over the ivory trade. But, being Peter, he wanted to know what the mammoth was and he wanted to have one for the Kunstkammer, his personal museum. Messerschmidt spent the winter in Tobolsk planning his expeditions and gathering information from the locals. By the end of the winter, he had come to regard Captain Tabbert as an indespensible intellectual companion and gained permission for Tabbert to accompany him on his travels as his assistant. The two worked together for over a year. In May, 1722, they arrived in Krasnoyarsk where Tabbert learned that the war was over and he was free to return home.

During their year together, Tabbert and Messerschmidt actively investigated the mammoth question. During the winter in Tobolsk, as they prepared for their summer expedition, they interviewed Siberian merchants to find out what they knew about mammoth remains. During their travels, they gathered mammoth bones in addition to the familiar ivory. No doubt, they discussed their ideas about the beast while they were on the road. It was Tabbert's bad luck that the one time he could have seen mammoth remains in situ, he and Messerschmidt were traveling separately and only the doctor was able to examine the site. When Tabbert returned to Sweden, all of the samples stayed with Messerschmidt. Messerschmidt did ship some molars and a piece of tusk to a scientific colleague in Danzig, Poland, but these samples would be unknown to the Tabbert and the Swedes until years after the discussion of Tabbert's drawing was over.

The earliest date I can find for Strahlenberg and the Society making contact with each other is June 11, 1724. On that date he arrived at a dinner of the Society and dazzled them with tales of "strange ice caves, about all sorts of unfamiliar fruits and trees, petrifications, deer, reindeer, mountain goats, elk and deer on the Yenisey, Tomski and several other rivers, and of Ostiaks on the Obi River, who said they 'come from a country-called Suomi-roll, which could be none other than Finland.'" If Strahlenberg said anything about mammoths beyond general comments about Petrifactions, it wasn't memorable enough for the Society to record in its journal. However, we have a good idea what he could have said because he later published it in his book about Siberia.

At four pages, Tabbert's is the longest account of any of the early Siberian travelers. In it, he uses the word mammoth to describe the whole animal, not just the ivory. He begins by repeating many of the points made by the others. The bones and teeth of mammoths are found in the spring when the floods wash them out of riverbanks. The teeth (as he calls them) can be made into anything ivory can. He is sure that it is real ivory and not a mineral. After a long discussion of the etymology of the name (which he is certain derives from Behemoth), Tabbert finally addresses the question, what kind of animal was the mammoth? "But this is not so readily answered," he admits.
[Muller] says, That these animals were nine Russian Ells long; But an ancient Painter, one Remessow, a native of Russia, who liv'd at Tobolsky, informed me, in the presence of Dr. Messerschmidt and many others, that he and thirty more of his Companions had seen between the Cities of Tara and Tomskoi, near the Lake call'd Tzana Osero, an entire Skeleton of one of these Creatures, thirty-six Russian Ells long, lying on one Side; and the Distance between the Ribs on one Side, and the other, was so great, that he, standing upright, on the Concavity of one Rib, could not quite reach the inner Surface of the opposite Rib with a pretty long Battle-Axe which he held in his Hand. To which may be added, that, not only, almost all over Siberia, there are found Jaw-Teeth or Grinders of twenty or twenty-four Pounds Weight each, and Bones of a vast Bigness; but Dr. Messerschmidt himself has seen the Bones of an whole Skeleton, of a monstrous Size, lying in a Heap in a Ditch between Tomskoi and Kasnetsko, on the banks of the river Tomber. Besides, every one of the Swedish prisoners, must remember that a Head of one of these Creatures is to be seen in the city of Tumeen, two Ells and a half long, which the Russians reckon to be one of the smallest Size. Considering what has been said, it is not to be believed that these Bones are Minerals and a Lusus naturae; And if we look upon the mighty Size, and take notice both of a whole Skeleton, and the Teeth, and at the same Time, take Notice their Crookedness, it is as impossible that they should be the Remains of Elephants. I have, indeed, formerly thought them to be Relics of Elephants ever since the flood; but there is no Manner of Proportion between them and the Skeleton of this huge Animal; I am therefore constrain'd to believe, that these Teeth and Bones are of sea animals, such as the Danes formerly us'd to bring from Greenland and Iceland, and sell for those of Unicorns. This might be illustrated by comparing those with these, especially that Tooth or Horn which is to be seen in the Musaeum of the King of Denmark.

Tabbert goes on to conclude that the mammoth was not a land animal, nor was it an amphibious animal that lived on the banks of rivers. He believes that it was a sea creature that lived in the Arctic Ocean before the Biblical Flood and that the bones found in his day were the remains of sea-mammoths stranded when the Flood's waters receded. He does not express an opinion as to whether or not sea-mammoths still exist. He concludes by saying that he's open to changing his mind if anyone should come up with a better solution.

Tabbert does not include a drawing of the mammoth in his book, but is clear that what he has in mind is nothing like the mammoth we know. A close reading of his account reveals that most of what he is describing is hearsay. The two complete skeletons he mentions were described to him by the painter Remessow and by Messerschmidt, who saw the skeleton when they were traveling apart. Messerschmidt left most of the bones of that mammoth behind, collecting only a molar and a part of a tusk. Strahlenberg clearly hasn't seen the narwhal horns in the Danish Kunstkammer or he would have known that they bear no resemblance to a mammoth tusk. It's not clear the ever saw a complete mammoth skull. He says the Swedish prisoners all knew there was a large skull in Tyumen, not that he had seen it. Messerschmidt sent a skull back to Europe, be he collected it the year after he and Tabbert parted ways. If Tabbert really had seen a mammoth skull, it's hard to see how he could have constructed the head that placed on his drawing.

Tabbert's mammoth drawing appears to a collage made from different sources, tusks and bones that he saw himself and tales recounted by others. Some of those tales were probably honest miscommunications while others, such as Remessow's giant, were likely tall tales. It's also possible that of the bones that he did see, not all of them were from mammoths. The head and body of his sea-mammoth are much easier to understand if we assume he was basing his reconstruction, at least partly, on the skull and bones of a woolly rhinoceros.

The skull of the Lindworm, or dragon of Klagenfurt, discovered in in 1335. In 1840 Franz Unger recognized the skull as being from a woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis).

Whatever Strahlenberg said about mammoths in his dinner conversation with the Society, it wasn't enough to satisfy the members, who continued to send out letters requesting new information. Any time an officer returned from Russia with a bone or piece of ivory that was believed to come from a mammoth, the Society asked to see it. On October 3, 1723 Benzelius exhibited a part of a jaw of a mammoth brought back by Capt. Clodt von Jürgensburg. The next month, he brought in a "part of the tusk of a Behemoth, which was exactly like ivory." Finally, in 1725, Benzelius acquired the best testimony to date through the intermediary of Lt.Col. Peter Schönström, who had been mentioned in minutes two years earlier as the possible owner of a complete tusk.

Schönström had been the private secretary to King Charles at the time of the Battle of Poltava but was not part of the party that escaped with the king. In Solikamsk, where he spent his POW years, he was allowed access to old Russian and Tartar records that he studied for clues to early Scandinavian history. While there, he became acquainted with a veteran from the winning side at Poltava: Vasily Nikitich Tatishchev. The meeting might not have been an accident. Tatishchev was the director of mines for the Ural district, and Schönström was the cousin of Emanuel Swedenborg the assessor of the Swedish Board of Mines (and later a famous mystic). Following Schönström's return to Sweden, Tatishchev received permission to travel in Sweden where he and Schönström's cousin probed each other for intelligence on the mining and industrial capabilities of the other's country.

Tatishchev used his time in Sweden to pursue far more than his official goals. Like Schönström, Tabbert, and many others, he was deeply interested in the human and natural history of the northern countries. Tatishchev collected books, visited achieves, and sought out Swedish scholars. He visited Tabbert, whom he had also become acquainted with and, for a time, employed, in Siberia, at his home in Stockholm where he helped the former POW edit a manuscript that he was writing about the history of Siberia. In the spring of 1725, Tatishchev met with Benzelius. At some point, the conversation touched on the mammoth. Tatishchev revealed that during his own travels in Siberia, he had done some research into the subject. Benzelius asked the Russian to write a paper on the mammoth for the Society's journal. Tatishchev's paper is the first scholarly work devoted exclusively to the mammoth.

While Tabbert, Müller, and others before them had asked around about mammoths and sought out bones to examine, Tatishchev used his official authority to make systematic enquiries. As director of mines and governor of the Urals, Tatishchev was tasked with cataloging the resources of the district. To this end he developed a questionnaire that he sent to officials around the country. On section specifically asked about "subterranean petrifactions" and reminded the officials of their duty to report discoveries to the tsar. Tatishchev was able to acquire three good tusks. The first he sent to the tsar for his collection, the second to the Imperial Academy, and the third he kept for himself and had carved into "various pieces of work."

The paper that Tatishchev wrote for the Swedish Society covered much of the same ground that Müller and his predecessors had. Like all of the observers so far, his main focus was on the ivory if the animal he called "mamont". There is no doubt in Tatishchev's mind that the ivory is of an organic, and not mineral, nature; he calls it bone or horn throughout his paper. He mentions how the ivory is found eroding out of riverbanks in the far North every spring. He describes the texture of the ivory and lists the uses to which it is put. He repeats the primary theories of its origin: the natives believe the bones are the remains of a giant mole-like creature that lives underground while learned men believe they are the remains of elephants either brought there by the flood or by ancient armies. So far, there is nothing new here. Where Tatishchev outdoes his predecessors is in examining bones and ground in a way that is unmistakably scientific.

He measured the size and shape of the tusks he found and describes how they differ from and an elephants. He examined the chemical content of the ivory before declaring it to be of an organic, and not mineral, nature. He sought out other bones to study (much as Messerschmidt was doing at the same time). Sadly, the only skull he found was too "spoiled by age" for him to determine just how the ivory had been attached but, it was big enough, in his opinion, to be an elephant's. His most original contribution is in examining the native belief that the mammoth is an animal that burrows through the Earth. Most travelers had dismissed the idea as a superstition of savages. Tatishchev does too, but before coming to that conclusion, he tested a part of it.

Besides the simple fact that the bones were found underground, Tatishchev's informants gave him one other piece of evidence for their belief that the mammoth was a burrowing animal.
Besides, they tell, that some have obferv'd the earth rais'd into mounds, which happen'd while this animal was busy below in digging; and when he proceeded farther on, that the earth subsided again; and that, therefore, he left a tract or certain pit in the surface of the earth; as the trace of his subterraneous passage.

Such humps and pits, both small and large, are common and mysterious features of permafrost soils. At the time, most European scientists did not believe that deep frozen soil could exist. Didn't miners report the Earth getting warmer as they dug deeper? The very existence of permafrost wouldn’t be accepted until the middle of the nineteenth century and a detailed understanding of it's behavior wouldn't emerge until after WWII. We still don't completely understand it. Because he spent several years in and near the permafrost zone, Tatishchev knew that frost heaves and melt pockets were real and that they needed to be explained. His explanation of the pits is that they are sink-holes:
I afterwards enquir'd into those pits, which this animal was said to form as it walk'd under ground, and, I view'd them in different places, and I think I have discover'd what they are, namely, cavities and passages form’d by subterraneous waters; whence the incumbent, earth afterwards unexpectedly fell in; for, in Permia, upon examining such a pit, I found a torrent of water gliding under a hill.

With all the available evidence laid out before him, Tatishchev concluded that neither the "simple and credulous" natives nor the learned were on the right track. He was confident that he had disposed of the idea that the mammoth could be a subterranean animal. He thought it unlikely that the Flood would have swept elephants up in the tropics and deposited them in Siberia alone. As to an invading army with war elephants, there was no other evidence of such an event and it failed to explain how the bones became so deeply buried. Tatishchev didn't believe the ivory came from elephants at all. He thought ", that they are rather to be reckon'd to the class of horns than of teeth, and that they were parts of an animal different from an elephant." He also thought that there might be something to the Ostiak belief that the mammoth had movable horns.

Tatishchev's paper didn't go very far toward solving the mystery of mammoth ivory for the Swedish Society. After three years they had five possible explanations. Siberian natives thought mammoth ivory was the horn a giant mole-like creature. Russians living in Siberia thought it was the remains of elephants brought from somewhere else, probably by the Biblical Flood. Müller believed that mammoth ivory wasn't from an animal; he thought it was a mineral that grew in the Earth like coal or rock salt. Capt. Tabbert thought it was the tooth of a sea mammal, possibly related to the narwhal. Tatishchev thought it was the horn of a giant, as yet undiscovered, buffalo-like creature. The one man who had proof of the elphantine nature of the mammoth was Messerschmidt. A year after he and Tabbert serperated, he acquired a complete mammoth skull in excellent condition. However, during the years the Swedish Society was looking into the question, he making his way deeper into Siberia, nearing the Pacific Ocean and the Chinese frontier. None of Messerschmidt's notes were published during his lifetime. Indeed, most of them languished in boxes in the archives of the Russian Academy until the 1960s.

Messerschmidt's drawing of a mammoth skull. The skull itself was lost soon after he returned to St. Petersburg in 1728 and his drawing was not published until another ten years had passed.

If the investigations of the Swedish Academy and Tatishchev did not solve the mystery of the mammoth, they nevertheless mark an important transition. Before their investigations, information about the mammoth was anecdotal, collected by travelers and lexicographers and presented in the context of of much larger projects. The Academy and Tatishchev brought the mammoth to the forefront, made it a subject of study in its own right, and systematically gathered information about it. The questions they asked and the methods they employed were becoming more recognizably scientific. Tatishchev recognized that more research needed to be done: "I, therefore, conclude, that so long as anyone cannot aver, that he has seen this animal, many doubts must still necessarily remain, which must be left to time and farther observations to clear up."

The fate of the Swedish prisoners after Poltava was a tragedy. Thousands did not survive their captivity. Those who did survive were separated from their families and communities for over ten years. At the same time, the officers' time in captivity produced a treasure trove of scientific progress. Not only did they advance European knowledge of the archaeology, anthropology, geology, geography, and natural history of Russia and Northern Asia, they trained the next generation of Russian scientists and provided them with intellectual contacts in the West. From this, can we come to the Panglossian conclusion that everything works out for the best? I think not. The world would not have been worse off if it had taken us twenty years longer to learn about Siberia and more prisoners had survived. But, I do think it is a powerful example of the power of human curiosity. Even under the worst of circumstances, people will look up and start to ask questions. And, three hundred years later, we can be glad they did.

* Later historians refer to Tabbert as Strahlenberg. He, along with his three brothers, was enobled to that name in 1707 for their military service to King Charles. However, the contemporary sources I'm quoting here all refer to him as Tabbert, making my job just a little more difficult.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

No Charlie Sheen here

It has come to my attention that some blogs are filling their pages with gratuitous mentions of Charlie Sheen and his problems with sex, drugs, videos, and more Charlie Sheen just to pump up their traffic by luring in purient readers who just can't get enough of the latest, exclusive Charlie Sheen scandal news. Well, you won't see this blog lowering itself to that level. In fact, I won't even mention the name of Charlie Sheen on this blog. So, if you want exclusive interviews or hot videos of Charlie Sheen and two women, you'll have to look somewhere else.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

It's time for everyone (else) to make sacrifices

Once again, John Boehner is talking about "curbing" Social Security. He refuses to say how he wants to do that, but he assures us it must be done and it must be done soon. In the past he has said he supports raising the retirement age to seventy for younger workers while allowing those already close to the age of retirement age to collect on schedule. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, proposed partially privatizing Social Security and cutting benefits in his budget roadmap last year. Republicans and deficit hawks like to talk tough about sacrifices. If people lose jobs because of their budget cuts, "so be it." Of course, it's not their jobs that will be lost. They won't be the ones eating catfood if Social security is cut. Let's look at an example.

As Speaker of the House, John Boehner makes $223,500 a year, or roughly fifteen times the minimum wage. If he were to retire at the end of this term, at age sixty three, he would be entitled to a government pension of eighty percent of his final year's pay. That's $178,800 per year and it comes with cost of living increases. Of the funding for his pension, about twenty percent is deducted from his paycheck. He's also entitled to Social Security, which is also based on his final year's pay. That amounts to another $21,636 per year. And if that $200,000 per year isn't enough to pay for his golf outings, he can always dip into his personal wealth, which is estimated to lie somewhere between two and eight million. For those pesky medical bills, he can use Medicare.

Glenn Beck, who made thirty-two million in 2009, thinks Social security is un-American. He thinks we should be more self-reliant and that families should take care of their own old. In 1935 when Social Security was enacted, well over half of the seniors in the United States lived in poverty. Today, it is less than ten percent, which is still too much. Social Security prevents about twenty million Americans from slipping into poverty. Glenn Beck thinks those people should find a relative to live with and that those relatives should sacrifice something--college for the kids?--in order to take care of their seniors. John Boehner thinks seniors should keep working if they want to get by.

Rich men like Boehner and Beck are hypocrites for demanding that we all make sacrifices when they both know that they will never feel those sacrifices. Beck thinks we should all take care of our own. I'm sure he takes good care of his folks. I'm sure Boehner was a good son and helped his mother as needed. Their concept of "their own" doesn't go much further than that. Would either take an impoverished aunt or uncle into their homes? What about a more distant cousin? For them, a phrase like "we take care of our own" has a very narrow meaning. It's primarily limited to close blood relatives and maybe one of their closest friends or members of their church. It's limited to people whom they have met and only some of those. It does not extend to all Americans or even to that subset that they call "real" Americans. For them, "We the people" is an empty phrase; it's a symbol that they wrap themselves in on public occasions like the flag, Bible, and Constitution. They not only want to give the royal razz to anyone out side their narrow "we," but they actively stoke fear, resentment, and parochialism among their supporters so that they too will tell their fellow Americans to go to hell.

Due to a convenient loophole, John Boehner and Glenn Beck pay into Social Security at a far lower rate than you or I. The payroll deduction for Social Security is only collected on the first $106,800 that you make. The person who makes that much contributes $4485, or 4.2 percent of their pay, into the system. John Boehner, for his $223,500, contributes $4485, about two percent of his pay, into the system. Glenn Beck, for his thirty-two million, contributes $4485, about one seventieth of one percent of his pay, into the system. If they paid the payroll deduction on their entire incomes, the system would be solvent as far into the future as we can see. But wait, their defenders will say, they can only collect as much as the person making $106,800; why should contribute more just to help people they haven't even met? It isn't enough to say that there are Americans suffering and that they have it within their power to end their pain. Those other Americans are outside their tiny concept of "we."

It's common rhetoric on the right to say that the left hates America, Americans, and American values. But, where's the love in condemning millions of Americans to poverty? Since when is "I got mine, so screw you" an American value? It's time to stop scaring people with apocalyptic tales of the deficit and start thinking about helping people.

Thursday, March 03, 2011


A squall, with thunder and lightning, is passing through. Mehitabel the cat has decided she needs to spend some quality time under my chair.