Let’s Talk About Secrecy, Too (continued)

Leaks can cause harm, but we need to understand that so much secrecy actually damages the country. Secrecy leads to claims of conspiracy. If we have classified information about the Roswell incident, an almost inevitable result will be assertions about UFOs and aliens. If everything is not disclosed about the investigation into JFK’s death, conspiratorial claims about the assassination proliferate. You might think you are above that kind of thing, but what was your response when you found out that Jared Kushner, during the 2016 Presidential campaign, had a secret meeting with the Russians? Doesn’t at least part of you think something nefarious was going on?

And once information has been kept from the public, simply disclosing it does not cure the conspiracy problem. If the government claims that every bit of stuff about Roswell has been disclosed, many will not trust that pronouncement. If they hid something once, why should I trust that they are not hiding something now? Secrecy leads to a distrust of government, and the country is harmed when the government is not trusted. The recent disclosure by the government of information about unidentified aerial phenomena will be an interesting test. Will all those UFO and alien theorists disappear, pack up their hairspray, and disappear from the History Channel?

Government secrecy, in a subtle and insidious way, also tends to corrupt the holder of the secrets. The official with a secret feels powerful. The secret becomes a form of currency, a coin that can be held for ego purposes—I know more than you do—even if that information should be exchanged or that coin spent to enhance the prestige of the leaker or to gain an advantage in an internal government dispute.

Secret information presents another danger. Because access to the information is limited, it cannot be analyzed by all those who might have useful insights about it. Our country has had notable intelligence lapses. Our intelligence agencies, for example, were not aware of the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union or of the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah. We cannot know–but it is possible–that the analyses would have been different if more of the classified information had been available to academics, businessmen, NGO representatives, and others who knew or had studied Russia and Iran. Senator Patrick Moynihan may have been right in his belief that the demise of the Soviet Union would have been forecast if the intelligence agencies had kept less information to themselves. Moynihan also maintained that the United States significantly overspent on military budgets because excessive secrecy allowed intelligence agencies to overestimate Soviet military strength.

There is a related danger. Policy makers who have already decided on a course of action can pick and choose classified information to disclose to support their predetermined path. With other information remaining secret that might undercut the chosen course, the proposed policy cannot be properly examined or challenged. In other words, Hello, Iraq War.

Another aspect of human nature also comes into play. We humans assume that information that is secret must be especially valuable. Why else would it be secret? Where secrecy predominates, what is not secret is too easily disregarded or dismissed.

And, of course, we can never really trust a leak. Not only does the leaker have some sort of motive for disclosing the particular information and for not disclosing something more, there is a natural inclination to make his own additions to the leaked material. Or at least this is a normal impulse if Seneca is right when he said, “Nobody will keep the thing he hears to himself, and nobody will repeat just what he hears and no more.” We hear about leaks with the complainer wanting us to assume that the disclosure has endangered the country. We should challenge that assumption. The dangers should not be accepted merely because someone in government asserts it. And even though making some government information public can be harmful, we should never lose sight of the fact that secrecy harms our nation. We should start from the position that a culture of secrecy is un-American.

(concluded June 18)

Chasing Waterfalls (continued)

Mary Jemison was born in 1743 on board a ship as her parents emigrated from what is now Northern Ireland to America. When she was twelve, she and family members were captured from their Pennsylvania farm by Indians. The rest of her family was killed, but she was adopted by the Seneca. She married a member of the Lenape Indians, and after he died, she married a Seneca man. She had a half dozen children with the two men. When she was eighty, she published her life story, or at least the story as it was written down by an American minister, James Everett Seaver.

This book falls into the once-popular genre of captivity narrative. (Much of what I know about captivity narratives comes from Leonard Slatkin’s Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600- 1860). The numbers are not precise, but over athousand European descendants from New England villages were captured by and lived with Native Americans between 1677 and 1750. A study of 750 of these whose fates were known found that about 300 were ransomed and returned to New England after captivities ranging from six months to twenty years. Fewer than a hundred were killed, and others disappeared into Canada or elsewhere, and sixty became Indians. Some who returned to European settlements wrote about their experiences. Mary Rowlandson’s A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson was the first and perhaps the most popular. A hundred years after its first publication in 1682, the memoir was still being printed.

Rowlandson’s book was the archetype for many captivity narratives to follow. In her first-person account, as Slotkin puts it, “[T]he Indians become the instruments of God for the chastisement of his guilty people. . . . The experience of captivity . . . leads her to the perception of her own fallen debased, even beastlike condition, her absolute dependence on God, her weakness in the face of sin, and the precarious nature of all human conditions.” The return to the New England community did not fully resolve this pain and anxiety. “Yet the captive, like the regenerate convert, has experienced a thing that his fellows has not. . . . He has perceived that life is lived on the brink of an abyss, and this perception stays with him as an acute and continuing anxiety for the state of his soul and the wrath of God’s judgment on sinful people.”

Jemison’s story, written a century and a half after Rolandson’s, was not one of survival and Christian salvation, but it, too, was popular, selling in the 1820s as much as the best-selling novelists, Sir Walter Scott and James Fennimore Cooper. While Jemison may also have represented American values in an alien world, her resolution of this dichotomy was not with a return to the white world but by finding her place in Native American society.

The Seneca certainly valued Mary Jemison. In 1797, the Seneca Nation signed the Treaty of Big Tree with the United States. The Seneca negotiators included Mary Jemison. Not surprisingly, no woman was part of the negotiating team for the Americans. I have no idea when a woman first helped the United States negotiate a treaty, but I am willing to bet it was long after Jemison acted for the Seneca. And perhaps those facts might help us understand why some abducted colonial women chose to stay with the Native Americans.

Although the Seneca surrendered much land in the treaty in exchange for money, they also retained essential hunting and fishing rights and some relatively small parcels of land. Jemison was praised for how well she negotiated, and after the treaty the Seneca made her a land grant making her one of the largest landowners in western New York, the title to which was confirmed by the state in 1817.

Perhaps to the surprise of many readers, she spoke movingly about her first Indian husband, “Sheninjee was a noble man. . . . Yet, Sheninjee was an Indian. The idea of spending my days with him, at first completely irreconcilable to my feelings; but his good nature, generosity, tenderness, and friendship towards me soon gained my affection; and strange as it may seem, I loved him!”

After Sheninjee died, however, she married a much different man. Slotkin describes Hiokatoo as “no such quasi Christian as Sheninjee but a war-loving, torturing red devil, renowned for his cruelty to the whites.” Even so, Jemison came to admire him as “a kind of Indian Daniel Boone,” who had more strength and power than those around him. “Mrs. Jemison and her second husband—the pure white and the pure Indian—emerge as admirable characters in her narrative. She states that she has refused an opportunity to return to her white family, preferring her family ties to the bloody Hiokatoo.”

The land that she was granted now is part of Letchworth State Park. She sold the land late in her life when she felt that too many whites were moving nearby. She moved to the Buffalo Creek Reservation, where she died in 1833. Four decades later, she was reinterred near her old home on the Genesee River on what is now Letchworth State Park land.

In chasing waterfalls, we learned about two women who had much to do with Letchworth State Park—Caroline Bishop, who was not widely known, and Mary Jemison, who had much fame. We also learned that one of the most famous women in American history, Eleanor Roosevelt, helped create a unique attraction near the waterfalls.

(continued sporadically)