Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Pocahontas, Turtles, and Justice

Pocahontas statue
Statue of Pocahontas

It has been an interesting week in America. So I thought I would write a blog that reflected my perception of the past few days. I begin with Pocahontas, who has been in the news because one candidate has decided to call another politician—Elizabeth Warren, not a candidate per se, but perhaps surreptitiously campaigning for a vice presidential nod—by that noble name. Now I am not advocating the insouciant use of the names of historical figures to describe just anyone at any time; but I did find it rather droll that the leading republican candidate underscored Ms. Warren’s apparently tenuous claim to Native American ancestry by using a historical reference that is politically incorrect yet somehow amusing. What to my mind makes that so? I am not sure, and I am still pondering my love–hate relationship with both of the leading candidates for president in the upcoming American election. Or maybe I just have a love–hate relationship with the democratic society we live in, and it has been distilled into my views of both the leading candidates. I don’t know. But I like Pocahontas, at least what I know of her, which is in part legend (or is it history, since it largely comes from John Smith’s own account), of her having intervened with her own tribe when that captain was taken prisoner by the Tsenacommacah in 1607. At about the tender age of 11, she allegedly offered her own head for Smith’s when her father, the chief of the tribe, was about to execute him.[1]

Now I rehearse this tale because the Pocahontas remark would work much better were Elizabeth Warren to understand and empathize with the views of her political opponents, as Pocahontas empathized with John Smith; or if Elizabeth Warren did something really heroic (like offer her head for Donald Trump’s). But maybe in attacking the republican nominee on twitter (how divinely Hicthcockian) she could be viewed as taking the blame for the attacks of the Clinton camp—yet they seem to do their own attacking well enough. But enough politics, enough history, and on to something else: turtles.

turtles
Assembly of Turtles

I turn to turtles next because I like them, even though they have been blamed recently for spreading salmonella. It is the title of the article that reported this contagion that grabbed me: “Salmonella Outbreaks are Being Caused by Turtles.” I suppose, given that it is in the passive voice, I should have been more alarmed by that, as many expository writing professors and tips-for-writing websites these days, have blacklisted the passive voice. Now the title of the article sounds delightfully diabolical, doesn’t it? I can just imagine the Synod of Turtles gathering somewhere to discuss their sinister plans for the coming year—ways to get back at inattentive human beings for outrages such as turtle soup or “shell games,” which they misperceive as always referring to turtle shells, or the like. “Let’s spread salmonella,” one of the more aggressive turtles says! The stenographic turtle asks for clarification, “How is salmonella spelled?”

“Will you stop with that accursed passive voice?” the turtle leader retorts (not realizing that “accursed” is itself a passive participle). “We must retaliate for that new flavor of ice cream made out of the bodies and shells of our brothers and sisters around the world. Let us smite them with germ warfare!” (Elaine Jake’s favorite flavor [or really confection] of ice cream was turtle crunch. I will ever hold the memory of taking her to Katie’s Custard in Beverley Hills, Texas, for a turtle sundae as dear and cherished.)

Justice statue
Statue Representing Justice

Finally, and much more seriously, I come to justice. I close with this because I wanted to suggest that while it is perhaps not the most important value in life—charity, mercy and forgiveness have to rank up there with it—it is close. In fact, the three just mentioned can only make sense if there is such a thing as justice. Now sometimes, we forget about these three when we seek justice. Sometimes we are so fixated on obtaining justice that nothing but justice, even retribution—“making someone pay,” clouds our perception and obfuscates mercy. That may have happened this week when a major university president was relieved of his post because of the evil behavior of some students on his campus. These students did the unspeakable, they committed rape. Nothing good came or could ever come of their actions, nothing good was intended by it. They felt empowered because they were athletes. Should their coach have known about their attitudes toward women? Yes, I suppose in a sense he should have, and he should have shown them a better way. Or he should never have allowed them on his team in the first place. But the college president is not down in the trenches the way a coach is. I only ask whether mercy could have been shown. There is perhaps no obvious answer to those of us who only saw this story from afar. But there is the perception, specifically one of overcorrection, for it is hard to see how a college president can be held responsible for the actions of all of his

Mercy statue
Statue Representing Mercy

students. Could he have done more to prevent it? Well, the people around him probably could have; but unless he micromanaged, he could not have prevented it. And in any case, assuming that there is an easy fix for sins as egregious as rape is, to my mind, naïve.

 

But I should perhaps stick with sweet themes such as turtle ice cream or politically incorrect themes such as Pocahontas, to whom I return now, in closing. The point I think that Mr. Trump was trying to make is that, as another vice presidential candidate (Lloyd Bensten) once said, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Change the words Jack Kennedy to Pocahontas and you get the gist, though it would date Mr. Trump a few years.

PC 94 not dated, ca. 1942 Ensign John F. Kennedy, USN, in South Carolina, circa 1942. Photograph in the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston.
Ensign John F. Kennedy, USN, in South Carolina, circa 1942.

Have a wonderful Memorial Day, my readers. Please remember those who, like John F. Kennedy, served our country nobly in the military, risking all, suffering harm, and in many cases fearlessly forfeiting their lives so we could enjoy this noble day.

Memorial day graves

[1] https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/pocahontas-her-life-and-legend.htm. Some six years later the Indian princess was herself captured by Captain Samuel Argall and used as a bargaining chip to secure prisoners and weapons that her father had taken in raids on the English. During her incarceration she encountered some who brought her to an understanding of Christianity and she eventually converted and the next year she married tobacco planter John Rolfe, though she would die by the age of twenty-two. The precise cause of her early demise is not known.

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