NY21: Is Green candidate Matt Funiciello a 9/11 “Truther”?

Some people, including Green Party candidate Matt Funiciello, question the widely held view that the 9/11 terror attacks were carried out solely by Islamic radicals. Photo: Robert J. Fisch, Creative COmmons, some rights reserved

Some people, including Green Party candidate Matt Funiciello, question the widely held view that the 9/11 terror attacks were carried out solely by Islamic radicals. Photo: Robert J. Fisch, Creative COmmons, some rights reserved

Green Party candidate Matt Funiciello has confirmed that he believes that the truth about the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 has been concealed from the public, despite  numerous investigations and probes.

“I’m definitely as an American in no way satisfied with the official story that we’ve been told over and over again about the three towers that came down and the subsequent damage on 9/11,” Funiciello said in an interview with NCPR.

He described himself as a “questioner” of the official narrative:  “The story does not make sense and it is not just from me.”

The issue arose during a hotly contested House race in which Funiciello is polling at 10%, trailing Democrat Aaron Woolf and Republican Elise Stefanik.

In comments posted on-line, Funiciello said that he doesn’t “believe the horrific and nonsensical fairy tale our government has sold us concerning 9/11.”

As evidence that the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington DC was part of a more complex conspiracy, Funiciello asserted that one of the structures that fell, known as World Trade Center 7, collapsed under mysterious circumstances.

In fact, a report produced by the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that the WTC 7 collapsed when fires inside the building weakened its structural integrity.  “Our take-home message today is that the reason for the collapse of World Trade Center 7 is no longer a mystery,” NIST lead investigator Shyam Sunder said at the time.

Asked about that report, Funiciello replied, “I guess you have a source that you believe is correct and I have what I saw with my own eyes.”  He added that he has friends, family members and acquaintances “who don’t agree” with the official findings.

A growing issue in on-line discussions

The last couple of weeks, anonymous comments about Funiciello’s 9/11 beliefs have been popping up in various on-line discussions.  Here’s an example from this blog.  “Phil” writes, “Don’t you think it’s only right that the media reveal to voters that Matt Funiciello is an outspoken 9/11 Truther?”

Similar accusations have popped up on the blog of Watertown Mayor Jeff Graham and the comment section of the Watertown Daily Times.  In past writings, Funiciello has appeared convinced that we don’t yet know the true story about the causes of and main conspirators behind the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington DC.

Funiciello’s 2010 article suggests that Wall Street Traders knew in advance about attack

In an essay posted on the Albany Times Union website in 2010, Funiciello wrote the following:

Some of the questions we should ask ourselves about 9/11 are pretty simple. Why doesn’t our so-called “free media” report on GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAWTC 7 at all? You know, the third tower that fell for no reason and that only 5% of Americans are even aware of?

Why were no scramble orders issued to shoot down hijacked planes flying over two of our major cities? Why were the “put options” [a reference to an investment tool used by Wall Street traders] that clearly show foreknowledge not important enough for the 9/11 Commission to explore (a.k.a. the “Nouveau Warren Commission”)?

How did the cockpit of the “plane” that hit the Pentagon make a hole smaller than it actually was and then spontaneously combust without leaving any evidence of the crash? Why were there massive amounts of thermite (a highly flammable accelerant) found in independent samples of the dust taken?

It turns out the issue also surfaced on the campaign trail this year.  During a candidate panel in June in Old Forge, while talking about the NSA spying scandal, Funiciello argued that Americans “still don’t really know why a third tower came down on 9/11. Why don’t we spy about that?”

In recent days, Funiciello has defended his views in numerous posts made in the comment section of the Watertown Daily Times.

Conspiracy theories about 9/11 have been widely debunked

A large number of journalists and government agencies have probed these questions and reached a general, though not universally held, consensus that 9/11 conspiracy theories don’t hold up under scrutiny.  The magazine Popular Mechanics conducted one of the most exhaustive probes a few years ago.  Here’s what they concluded:

Sadly, the noble search for truth is now being hijacked by a growing army of conspiracy theorists. A few of these skeptics make a responsible effort to sift through the mountain of information, but most ignore all but a few stray details they think support their theories.In fact, many conspiracy advocates demonstrate a maddening double standard. They distrust every bit of the mainstream account of 9/11, yet happily embrace the flimsiest evidence to promote their wildest notions: that Osama bin Laden attacked the United States with help from the CIA; that the hijacked planes weren’t commercial jets, but military aircraft, cruise missiles or remote-control drones; that the World Trade Center buildings were professionally demolished.

This discussion about Funiciello’s views on 9/11 and the causes of the terror attacks come as the Green Party candidate is polling at 10 percent, and as he prepares to take part in three debates with Democrat Aaron Woolf and Republican Elise Stefanik this fall.  He’s argued that Woolf should drop out of the race to clear the way for his candidacy.

But that kind of clout in the race is sure to come with more scrutiny and a closer look at Funiciello’s ideas and arguments.  It’s also likely to draw attacks from his political opponents.  What do you think?  Does it matter to you that Funiciello holds views about the 9/11 attacks that are generally discounted?

Is fight for Scottish independence based on literary hoax?

"Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of Fallen French Heroes," Anne-Louis Girodet, 1805, public domain

“Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of Fallen French Heroes,” Anne-Louis Girodet, 1805, public domain

Actually, yes.  It sort of is.  At least in part.

I’ve always been fascinated by con artistry, by politics, and by literature, so I love the fact that the upcoming independence vote in Scotland gives me a chance to talk about all three.

In case you’ve missed it, the voters of Scotland go to the polls this week to decide whether they should exist as an entirely autonomous nation, separate from the United Kingdom.

The outcome?  I couldn’t care less.

But it’s incredibly cool that one of the first big catalysts shaping Scottish identity was a massive fraud perpetrated by a poet in the 1700s.  James Macpherson cooked up a series of poems which he claimed were translations of an ancient cycle of myths, tapping the root of Scotland’s indigenous culture.

The narrator of the poems, a figure dubbed “Ossian,” was described as a kind of Scottish-Celtic version of Homer.

Macpherson’s goal was to convince Europe’s big thinkers – and his fellow Scottish citizens at home – that their homeland had a history and a future independent of England.  And it worked.  People bought it and the poems were a huge hit.

They were translated into French, Italian, Russian, Polish and German and became a kind of fad as far away as the Americas, where Thomas Jefferson was a fan.   Goethe wrote about Ossian and an opera based on the poems appeared in 1804.  Ingres and other great painters took up the poems.

The trouble, of course, is that Ossian never existed and the entire epic cycle of poems that supposedly provided one foundation of Scottish identity was cooked up in Macpherson’s imagination, based loosely on various poems and legends cribbed from around the British Isles and Ireland.

A debate raged through the late 1700s about their authenticity, with figures like Voltaire and Samuel Johnson expressing skepticism and scorn, while many Scots defended the work and embraced it as a cornerstone of their culture.

In his 2009 book about the ruse, Thomas Curley described the Ossian poems as “the most successful literary falsehood in modern history.” The poems still linger in the imagination because they were, by most accounts, fairly well written, if you go in for ponderous, vaguely Tolkien-esque fantasy.

“As flies the inconstant sun over Larmon’s grassy hill,” Macpherson wrote, “so pass the tales of old along my soul by night! When bards are removed to their place, when harps are hung in Selma’s hall, then comes a voice to Ossian, and awakes his soul! It is the voice of years that are gone!   They roll before me with all their deeds! I seize the tales as they pass, and pour them forth in song.”

And so on.  It turns out this kind of cultural flim-flam is nothing particularly out of the ordinary.

Many of the great works about early American culture and life are, in fact, pure put-ons.  “The Education of Little Tree,” a best-selling first-person account of Cherokee life, was written by a white guy, who also happened to be a former member of the Ku Klux Klan.  Another popular book, an “autobiography” of Davy Crocket’s life in the American West, was a fake.

Benjamin Franklin, whose writings helped craft the early American identity, worked under several fictional guises, male and female, before our War of Independence.  While writing under the pseudonym Richard Saunders, Franklin argued that “historians relate not so much what is done as what they would have believed.”

Much the same can be said for these mytho-propagandists.  They create a sense of history and identity that can be awesomely powerful, lingering long after the truth is revealed.

If the Scots do go their own way this week, claiming independence, there will be many causes, many inspirations.  But it’s delightful and weird that two of their earliest icons will have been a great poet who never existed and a literary con-man who charmed the best minds of Europe.

Are questions about Stefanik’s personal life sexist?


Elise Stefanik is the front-runner in New York’s 21st district House race. Photo: NYS GOP

In case you’ve missed it, one of the more complex kerfuffles in this year’s NY21 congressional race has been the give-and-take over a letter sent to the Watertown Daily Times by occasional Democratic activist Mike Flynn.  In that letter, Flynn challenged Republican Elise Stefanik, a single woman who turned thirty this summer, to tell voters more about her personal life.  “Does Elise Stefanik have a private relationship with anyone?” Flynn asked.

The letter set off a round of zingers.  Democratic candidate Aaron Woolf quickly distanced himself from Flynn, calling the letter “reprehensible and antithetic to what this campaign does or should represent.”  The Republican spin machine fired off an e-mail blast describing Flynn as a “Woolf volunteer” and blasting what they described as a “sexist rant.”

In modern American politics, this kind of thing is viewed as prime gotcha-bait.  “Can a single woman enter politics without her dating life being invaded?” asked the Washington Examiner’s Ashe Schow in an opinion piece.  “Would Flynn be asking this question of a successful, single man running for office?”

The New York Post characterized the letter as part of a war on Republican women.  That view has been shared in a series of blog posts by Stefanik supporter Jeff Graham, the Watertown mayor, who has sought throughout the campaign to portray anyone asking questions about Stefanik’s background as cynical.

No, questions about a candidate’s personal life are not sexist

But the reality is that family, personal life and even that tough-to-define issue of character have always been issues in American elections.  All politics ain’t just local — it’s domestic.  When Matt Doheny ran as single man, then engaged to be married, his personal life was a significant focus of coverage, before and after photos surfaced suggesting that he might have been overly intimate with “another” woman in Washington DC.

When current Rep. Bill Owens got zinged for traveling to Taiwan on a trip paid for by the Taiwanese government, one of the major issues of that mini-scandal was that he made the trip with his wife, whose trip was also paid for.  To many in the district, it appeared to be an all-expense paid trip for a couple, rather than the kind of junket that might actually serve the interests of the 21st district.  (Owens later apologized and paid for his and his wife’s trip out of his own pocket.)

Which is not to say that asking questions about a candidate’s life outside politics needs to be about scandal.  Here’s the heart of Flynn’s letter:

“In a congressional race, I think it not only fair but necessary to go on the record about your relationships. I don’t think this falls under the heading of prying eyes; it’s an indicator of what you are about as a person and candidate for congressional office.  How at this stage of the campaign has not one question appeared in print that would inquire if Ms. Stefanik has a significant other in a relationship that she could talk to us about? Well, let’s just say it’s unusual.”

The truth is, for all the goofy rhetoric that has surrounded his letter — including some of Flynn’s own over-the-top rhetoric — he has an argument.  It’s not that Ms. Stefanik would be a single person representing the district.  John McHugh represented the North Country ably as a single man for years.  But McHugh was rooted deeply in the district, had family ties here, a record of associations and known roles.  We knew him.

Getting to know Elise Stefanik

Right now, Elise Stefanik is the odds-on favorite to win this House seat.  She’s well ahead of her competition and her main opponent, Democrat Aaron Woolf faces a deeply divided voter base with a campaign that has been less than inspirational so far.  But with that front-runner status comes closer scrutiny.  And the fact is that Stefanik doesn’t have the kind of hometown, we-all-know-you track record that voters enjoyed with Owens and McHugh.

She moved to the district last year to prepare for the race.  NCPR’s reporting has found that her campaign story about deep ties to Willsboro, where her parents own a seasonal home, were not entirely matched by the facts or by local sentiment.  During our visits to the Essex County hamlet it proved difficult to find people who knew of Stefanik or recognized her name.

It matters that so many GOP leaders have embraced Stefanik.  One assumes that they vetted her closely and their backing is a strong sign of confidence.

But her claims that she moved to the district because she suddenly discovered a passion for her parents’ lumber business also triggers a big sniff test.  Is it really plausible that a high-flying Washington DC policy analyst, Harvard trained, with close ties to some of the most powerful Republicans in the country, suddenly had a hankering to do customer service on plywood deliveries in Essex County?  And just happened to discover an interesting political opportunity?

Even her official bio, describing her as having been “born and raised in Upstate New York,” is remarkably thin.  The gaps in that narrative mean that voters deserve to get to know Ms. Stefanik much, much better before casting their ballots.  Obviously, those efforts come with a burden of civility and respect.  There is absolutely a risk of questions about her age and her relationships sounding (or being) sexist.

But it’s worth noting that, when making her own foray into journalism, Stefanik found these issues interesting and worthy of investigation.  Writing for the Harvard Crimson, she wrote eloquently about the intersection of love and relationships and ambition and career.  “But even if it’s just our nature, are we missing out on the best parts of life?” she asked.

“We, at Harvard, can still meticulously prepare to make gazillions of dollars, change the world, found a nonprofit and be elected senator. But every once in a while, the best decision we will make is allowing ourselves to fall—the way Elvis and Romeo do.”

We need to know more about all these candidates

It helps, too, to ease the danger of these questions reflecting unfair treatment of a woman that these same questions need to be asked of the men in the race, Matt Funiciello and Aaron Woolf.  They too are almost completely unknown to voters.  Who are they as people?  Do they have kids in our public schools?  Are their spouses or partners rooted here in our community?  Do they go to church?  Do they have hobbies?  Put bluntly, who the heck are these folks?

In the case of Woolf, it’s particularly important to know whether his family plans to relocate to the North Country if he wins our House seat.  But as a journalist and voter, I want to know a lot more about Matt Funiciello as a person too.  Married, single?  Other powerful interests and beliefs?  Other than running a business, who is he as a person?

The bottom line is that this race is different.  Voters are being asked to choose among three candidates who are almost complete strangers, candidates who have so far only been willing to share policy ideas and opinions that are relatively safe, anodyne, and boiler-plate.  Most of the rhetoric so far could be coming from any Republican, any Democrat, any Green, running in almost any district in the country.

Given how unwilling the politicians have been to reveal themselves, and how little candor we’ve seen on the campaign trail, the job of the public (and journalists) is to dig beneath the surface, to learn everything we can about these individuals who are auditioning to be our representatives in Washington DC.  If that means occasionally risking the boundaries of political correctness, that’s fine.  Politics, as they say, ain’t bean bag.

The revenge (betrayal?) of the GOP moderates

The last decade or so, Republican conservatives have faced a bitter uphill battle for control of Washington DC.  They’ve stumbled over their own ideological excesses, with candidates dragging issues such as ‘legitimate’ rape, birth control and the role of women in the workplace into the limelight.  One tea party-favored candidate found herself struggling to assure voters that she wasn’t “a witch.”

This political cycle, a lot of far-right candidates didn’t even make it to November.  They were toppled by establishment Republicans, who have shown themselves to be feistier, better prepared and more flexible than in 2010 and 2012.  Candidates who once quailed under the RINO label have been fighting back, building big war chests, tacking to the right themselves while working effectively to de-fang conservative and libertarian opponents.  There’s even talk of another Mitt Romney run in 2016.

But perhaps the most dramatic feature of this anti-conservative backlash has been the number of centrist Republicans who have actually abandoned their party altogether, running as independents or Democrats.   Often, but not always, they’ve made the jump because they’ve faced un-winnable primary battles against right-wing challengers.

What’s the matter with Kansas?

Moderate andidates such as Greg Orman, who is running as an independent in Kansas, could keep the GOP from winning control of the Senate in November. Photo: Greg Orman for Senate campaign.

Moderate candidates such as Greg Orman, who is running as an independent in Kansas, could keep the GOP from winning control of the Senate in November. Photo: Greg Orman for Senate campaign.

The latest in this trend is Greg Orman, a candidate in Kansas who has spent time as a moderate Republican and a moderate Democrat.  Running this year as an independent, he’s managed to consolidate opposition to Republican Senator Pat Roberts in what has been a bright red Republican state.  He has a real chance to topple the GOP stalwart.  Democrats are backing him and dozens of moderate Republicans have also endorsed his campaign.

If Orman wins, it could well deny Republicans their long-coveted control of the US Senate.

Roberts isn’t the only GOP leader in Kansas threatened by friendly fire.  One of the conservative movement’s most prominent activists, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, also faces a serious challenge from a Republican defector.

Kobach has emerged as a major national voice on conservative voter ID laws, and helped write Arizona’s controversial immigration laws.  But according to polls, he’s currently running behind Democratic candidate Jean Schodorf, who was a long-time moderate Republican before switching parties.

A moderate backlash in Alaska and Florida

The same defection trend could reshape the balance of power in the states.  Another former Republican, Florida’s Charlie Crist, is mounting a serious campaign as a Democrat to take the Florida governor’s seat away from Republican Rick Scott.

That would be a massive blow for the GOP.  Meanwhile, in Alaska, former Republican Bill Walker is running as an independent in a coalition with a former Democratic running mate in a bid to unseat conservative Republican Governor Sean Parnell.

This kind of backlash is nothing new.  Ever since Barry Goldwater’s conservative vanguard toppled the center-left Republican candidacy of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1964, the GOP has been shedding moderates and struggling to balance the party’s warring factions.   At two key moments, Republican defections have repeatedly put control of the US Senate solidly in the hands of Democrats.

The Jefford Effect

Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords’ decision to dump the GOP and serve as an Independent tipped control of that body to the Dems in 2000, just at the moment that President George W. Bush was rolling out his agenda.  In 2009, meanwhile, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter defected to the Democrats, helping to give Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and providing the 60th vote for the controversial Affordable Care Act.

Many conservatives are thrilled to see their party purged of members who would even consider aiding and abetting Democrats in Washington.  But this is a delicate dance for Republican leaders.  First, they understand that Tea Party loyalty to the GOP itself is relatively thin, with right-wing activists willing to abandon candidates who don’t back orthodox conservative views.  Whole campaigns rise and fall on the support of fickle AM talk radio hosts and bloggers.  That’s a precarious position.

Also, establishment Republicans remain unconvinced that a tea party-libertarian agenda can attract enough loyal support to win long-term control of the Senate, or the White House for that matter.  The math is especially tough if planks of that platform continue to alienate women and Hispanics who are playing a bigger and bigger role in key states.  The math becomes incredibly precarious if Republican candidates and politicians continue to peel off at vulnerable moments.

How will moderates vote in a conservative-led US Senate?

This trend could well be back in the headlines even if Republicans do win control of the Senate in November.  If Mitch McConnell emerges as majority leader and roles out a conservative agenda — scheduling votes to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and making deep cuts to Federal spending — that will put immense pressure on GOP Senators in blue and purple states.

In particular, lawmakers Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire) will face many of the pressures that previously confronted other Northeastern moderates, from Jeffords and Spector to Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican US Senator who now serves as the Democratic Governor of Rhode Island.

With the Senate still expected to be narrowly divided, even the small remaining cadre of GOP moderates could have a huge influence on the agenda and the debate next year.

Plattsburgh man accused of carrying drugs and indulging in irony

DARE drugs

Oh the indignity. DARE doll used as drug mule. Photo: NYS Police

State Police say they busted 22-year-old Gregory Bolognese of Plattsburgh this week for allegedly carrying a potpourri of illegal narcotics at the Greyhound bus station.  His stash reportedly including marijuana, half a gram of cocaine, and LSD.

With the North Country jittery over a serious heroin and prescription drug epidemic, arrests like this one are fairly common these days.  A lot of young people in the region have been swept up in recent months as police and prosecutors try to put the squeeze on drug offenders and traffickers.

So why does Bolognese’s case warrant a mention? The Clinton County man reportedly was carrying his stash inside a stuffed animal dressed in a D.A.R.E. t-shirt.  You know, from the “Drug Abuse Reistance Education” program?

State police distributed a photo of the stuffed-toy-mule, looking sort of like a bedraggled perp in a mug shot.  Bolognese was charged with two counts of criminal possession of a controlled substance and unlawful possession of marijuana and is now in Clinton County jail.

Major discovery in historic Franklin Expedition

Overhead image showing what appears to be a well-preserved ship. Source: Parks Canada

Overhead image showing what appears to be a well-preserved ship. Source: Parks Canada

When two ships and all the crew of the Franklin Expedition went missing in the Arctic back in the late 1840s, a massive search and rescue effort ensued, to no avail.

The mystery has fascinated researchers and the lay public ever since. In 2008 Canada resumed the hunt to find the expedition’s lost ships with considerable effort and media attention.

On Tuesday (Sept 9) Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the discovery of one of the long-sought lost ships.

As stated in the official press release:

“Although we do not know yet whether the discovery is Her Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Erebus or HMS Terror, we do have enough information to confirm its authenticity. This find was confirmed on Sunday, September 7, 2014, using a remotely operated underwater vehicle recently acquired by Parks Canada.”

Full details on the location of the find were not immediately released. One source quoted John Geiger of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society as indicating the vessel was discovered in “…about 36 feet below the surface in Queen Maud Gulf, off the Nunavut mainland, about 1,800 miles north of Toronto.” (Note: I include that “where” quote for curiosity’s sake, the specifics require further official confirmation.)

Here’s more coverage from Canadian Press and the CBC. And here’s how the news was covered by the BBC:

The find has been described as “the biggest archaeological discovery the world has seen since the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb almost 100 years ago” by a British archaeologist, William Battersby, who has written extensively about the Franklin expedition.

“From the images it is clear that a huge amount of evidence will be preserved from the expedition, possibly even including the remains of the men and maybe, just possibly, some of their photographs,” he said.

The loss of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, which was built in Topsham, Devon, prompted one of largest searches in history, running from 1848 to 1859.

The mystery has gripped people for generations, in part because no one knows for sure exactly what happened to the crew.

This story gets far more press in Canada and the UK, because of the ties those nations have to the event, and (to some degree) because of the Prime Minister’s strong personal interest in the search. CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge penned an essay on why he and others care about something over and done so long ago.

This isn’t just a story of looking for old bones and old bits of ship — it’s a story about us, about our country, about our history.

Are there more important things to be studying, researching and looking for?

Of course.

But this is a pretty good one, too, and this week’s news is exciting — Canadians have found what many others couldn’t, and we’ve unlocked yet another part of our own story.

I’ve written about the hunt and its appeal in several previous In Box posts. It’s just a great “and then what happened?” yarns.

Ian Austen covers Canada for the New York Times. His article of Sept 9 summarizes some of  the political and archeological aspects of the discovery:

John Geiger, the president of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, one of the groups that participated in the search, said that images showed that the ship appeared to be very well preserved. He said he expected that divers would eventually recover artifacts that further detail the expedition’s ordeal.

“It’s not just that the ships are interesting historical artifacts,” he said. “They hold answers to questions that have long been unanswered.”

Clearly, there will be far more to come on this discovery, and one more ship to find, if possible. Here’s a link to more from Parks Canada, including a photo galley and video.

As reported by CBC, the search was conducted by “a partnership between Parks Canada, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Arctic Research Foundation, the Canadian Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Navy and the government of Nunavut.”

North Country Assemblyman accused of political espionage

William Barclay (R-Pulaski)

William Barclay (R-Pulaski)

Here’s something you don’t hear every day.  In the high stakes game of New York politics, North Country Assemblyman William Barclay faces a claim that he took part in a scheme to place an electronic tracking device on another state Assembly member’s car.  The report first surfaced in the New York Daily News.

According to the article, Barclay — chair of the Republican Party’s statewide Assembly Campaign Committee — took part in a decision to hire a private investigator to track a Democratic lawmaker from Suffolk County.  The P-I reportedly put an electronic tracker on the car of Assemblyman Edward Hennessey.  This from the Daily News:

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said it reminded him of Watergate, the gold standard for political dirty tricks.  “Any citizen should have the right to traverse wherever they want without being tracked by a GPS device,” Silver said. “The public should be shocked and outraged by it.”

The newspaper reports that Republicans were hoping to determine whether Hennessey actually lived within his district.   It appears that the practice of placing a tracking device on someone else’s car is actually legal.  Barclay, who represents the 120th Assembly district, including a chunk of Fulton and Jefferson counties, hasn’t commented on the report.

Rochester Assemblyman Joseph Morelle has called on Barclay to apologize.

Family history and the Battle of Plattsburgh

Gen. Alexander Macomb at the Battle of Plattsburgh. Artist unknown.

Gen. Alexander Macomb at the Battle of Plattsburgh. Artist unknown.

Two hundred years ago, when the weight of the British Empire’s armies swept south from Canada into the United States, four of my ancestors fought to throw them back. Three took up arms in the Battle of Plattsburgh. A fourth, Captain Aaron White of the NY 164th, gave his life in a skirmish with red coats at the Battle of Black Rock in western New York, as part of a failed effort to defend the city of Buffalo.

This old, deep connection to the North Country and the history of New York comes as a surprise. I moved to Saranac Lake sixteen years ago, with no suspicion that I had roots in this part of the country. I thought of my family as Western and Midwestern. But it turns out my people followed a pattern of migration that took us across New England and Vermont and included a pivotal chapter in New York in the early 1800s.

This blood-tie to our region’s history was uncovered by my mom, Elaine Sunde, an avid genealogist and president of the Midwest Historical and Genealogical Society in Wichita, Kansas, the city where I was born. Most summers, Mom — sorry, I just can’t call her Elaine or Mrs. Sunde — makes a trip here to the North Country to trek through old graveyards and scour county records offices in places like Fort Covington, Philadelphia, Malone and Elizabethtown.

“Research on the War of 1812 is beastly difficult because the records are so poorly kept,” she told me recently, when we got to talking about the upcoming Battle of Plattsburgh commemoration. “Records for the Revolutionary War were much better kept, so you have to pick this stuff up in bits and pieces where-ever you can find it.”

Digging through old records, Mom found that three of our ancestors fought in Plattsburgh in September of 1814. One, a militia officer named Joseph Skinner, lived in Elizabethtown where he ran an inn and tavern. Beginning in 1809, the Governor of New York began to establish arsenals at Elizabethtown and Plattsburgh, anticipating an invasion. As a militia major Joseph Skinner was assigned to secure the two arsenals. When the British invasion was imminent, he rushed north and joined the battle as a member of the Clinton County militia.

His 14 year old son, St. John Skinner, also fought bravely in the fray as part of Aiken’s Volunteers, a squad of academy students who took up arms. According to Mom’s research, “They were considered to be the heroes of the battle,” she says of St. John and his comrades. “They were recognized as having been major players because of their willingness to step forward. Later, they were recognized by Congress as having performed with great gallantry.” It’s hard to imagine this ancestor — a kid four years younger than my own son — taking up arms to stand against the greatest military power on earth.

In 1835, St. John Skinner spoke to the Plattsburgh Lyceum, detailing his father’s adventures in the battle. By his account, Major Joseph Skinner was seized near the river by three British soldiers. He was robbed of his horse, sword, and money, then clubbed with the butt end of a musket. As they carried him away as a captive, a party of Essex militia gave chase and fired. The British soldiers were killed, pulling Skinner into the water with them. When Skinner managed to stand, he was still in the line of fire. Just in time, one of his rescuers recognized him as a fellow member of the Essex Masonic Lodge.

Joseph Skinner was my third great uncle; St. John, my cousin.  A third relative, also a great-great-great-uncle named Lemuel Warren is mentioned in contemporary accounts as having taken part in the battle at Plattsburgh. A private in the 4th regiment of Peck’s Vermont militia, he was one of some 2500 Vermont volunteers that crossed the lake to help defend Plattsburgh. A young man and former school teacher, “he apparently did not significantly distinguish himself,” Mom said, though again sparse record-keeping makes it difficult to know.

My fourth War of 1812 ancestor, Aaron White, was my great-great-great-great grandfather. A captain, he fought unsuccessfully to try to prevent the British from reaching Buffalo in December of 1813. The New York militia met the British and native warriors along the Niagara River. Most militiamen ran but my grandfather did not. He died on the 29th of December and the British pushed on to sack and burn Buffalo.

“I wish that I knew more about the battle of Black Rock,” Mom says. “I wish I had a little better picture of how it happened that he was one of the few killed, while so many other American soldiers managed to make their getaway. I choose to think that he was maybe more heroic.”

I like that idea, too, but I mostly love the happy accident that our family was involved at all, that our ties to the North Country and Upstate New York run so far back into the dust and mud and, yes, even the blood of our shared history.

Polygamy news: Utah ruling and Canadian name-rights case

The affect of polygamy on children remains one of the most contentious issues of that institution. Image:Teens from polygamous families, Wikimedia

The affect of polygamy on children remains one of the most contentious issues of that institution.
Image: Teens from polygamous families, Wikimedia

Did you ever imagine polygamy would become so…topical?

Confession time: I have never seen any of the TV shows that have sprung up on this topic. The few books I have read on the subject left me with a decidedly dim view of polygamy.

While I can accept a theoretical right for adults to choose their own relationships, I see valid reasons to find polygamy objectionable. Critics allege that in many polygamous sects girls are raised to be married off young, at the whim of male elders, without much ability to dissent. Boys may be exploited for their labor then jettisoned as surplus competition for mates. Some would consider that sex crimes and child abuse – at least as adjudicated by conventional standards.

Anyway, this week saw an important ruling out of Utah. As reported by the International Business Times:

A federal judge has struck down part of Utah’s anti-polygamy law, following a lawsuit brought by the family featured in the reality TV show “Sister Wives.”

The ruling effectively decriminalizes polygamy in the state, while maintaining bigamy as an offense.

U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups’ ruling follows a similar order that he handed down last year. The final ruling on that case was delayed due to procedural matters.

The ruling strikes down a provision of Utah’s anti-bigamy statute, that can be applied when someone “cohabits with another person” to whom they are not legally married. Utah law made such a union a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

The judge found that the statute violated the family’s freedom of religion.

Bigamy, you’ll recall, is the offense of being married to more than one person at the same time. That’s still illegal. For now. But apparently it’s become difficult to legislate against polygamous co-habitation that falls short of bigamy. (Which make sense. I mean, once it became legal to live together outside of marriage, something most have come to accept, how can one legislate against multiple co-habitation among consulting adults?)

Meanwhile, in the courts of British Columbia, the Vancouver Sun reports that

Polygamist Winston Blackmore is fighting the mainstream Mormon church in court for the right to use the name The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Blackmore has registered the name in B.C. and won’t give it up. It’s all because of polygamy.

In response to a civil suit launched in June by the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Blackmore argues that he and his 500-or-so followers deserve the name because they continue to practise polygamy as an essential tenet of their beliefs, just as Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith set out in 1838.

Blackmore is part of a sect of Mormons known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints (FLDS). Buzzfeed has this eclectic list of 19 things you probably don’t know about FLDS polygamists.

The larger, U.S.-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) initially repudiated “plural marriage” in 1890 and makes a point of renouncing that practice today. So the question of trademarks and brand (if you will) over who gets to use the name is naturally contentious. As the Vancouver Sun explains, the LDS may have dropped the ball on protecting their name:

But the problem for the church is that it never registered the name in Canada.

So, in May 2010, Blackmore cleverly registered “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Inc.” in British Columbia, omitting the hyphen and putting the capital letter on “Day.”

While the number of mainstream and fundamentalist Mormons in Canada remains small relative to the U.S., LDS history does include early outreach into Canada.

Writing for the National Post, Tristan Hopper explores how no less than martyred Church founder Joseph Smith once went knocking door-to-door in Upper Canada back in 1833, without much success:

Crossing the border in October, likely with only a small carriage, Smith dubbed Canada “very fine country” and “well cultivated.” But, he also said he “had many peculiar feelings in relation to both the country and people.”

The feeling was apparently mutual.

Unlike the Americans, Canadians never assaulted, killed or tarred-and-feathered any visiting Mormons, but many did react negatively to Yankee strangers telling them they had gotten Christianity all wrong.

“It was seen as sectarian and fanatical and there’s improbable claims, right?” said William Goddard, a local historian in Hamilton, Ont. “’Angels and golden bibles, so how can we put any faith in this?’”

It’s an interesting article about a little-known over-lap of Mormon and Canadian history.

Utah polygamists in prison, circa 1889

Portrait of Mormon polygamists in prison, at the Utah Penitentiary, circa 1889. Image: Wikimedia Commons


Arctic tour puts unintended spotlight on climate change

This August, Stephen Harper became the first Canadian Prime Minister to travel to the Northwest Passage. Photo: Prime Minister's Office

This August, Stephen Harper became the first Canadian Prime Minister to travel the Northwest Passage. Photo: Prime Minister’s Office

For 9 years running, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has spent part of his summers touring Canada’s Arctic regions, including this year’s Operation Nanook 14.

He goes to wave the flag and bolster territorial claims in the area. He goes in anticipation of a coming boom once resources and shipping are more accessible. And many think he goes from a genuine respect for the history and potential of the far north.

On tour, or back in Ottawa, what Canada’s most important political figure seldom discusses is a little thing called climate change. Which is odd, considering how the Arctic absolutely, utterly proves that something big is happening to our planet.

Particularly in the U.S., one can still get arguments about the cause of receding glaciers, changes in sea ice, and shifts in weather, animal and plant life. But in the Arctic, it’s virtually impossible to deny major changes are happening, often even faster than initially predicted.

Residents there know that first-hand. The Arctic Rangers, a mostly-indigenous civilian reservist force that patrols the region, say nearly everything is changing. As reported by the Canadian Press:

“The elders used to be able to predict the weather by looking at the clouds; they can’t do that anymore. You can’t predict the weather anymore,” was a typical comment on the impact of climate change, which has reduced snow cover, led to earlier springs and generated fiercer winter winds.

Snowmobiles are becoming less available as the snow disappears, making it harder to travel.

“We never used to have forest fires. Now we have more and more each summer,” said one participant.

“There are new species now like small birds, ducks, salmon, foxes, grizzlies and an unknown species that is a cross between a polar bear and a grizzly,” said another. “We never used to see any of these species before.”

Meanwhile, staples of the indigenous northern diet — caribou, seal and polar bear — are migrating north to escape the warmer weather, leaving fewer animals to hunt.

“Polar bears used to be fat and tasty,” said one ranger. “They taste different now.”

And the Arctic is no longer a natural refrigerator for the hunt, said some.

“When we are on the land and living in tents, we dig holes to put the carcasses in to keep them frozen. Now even six feet down it is not frozen.”

Natural Resources Canada map showing

Natural Resources Canada map of estimated burn sites near Yellowknife NWT, toward the end of the 2014 fire season.

CBC news reports the fire season has been unusually bad in the Northwest Territories this year:

The worst forest fire season in decades has ravaged about 33,000 square kilometres of land — an area larger than the size of Vancouver Island.

Most of the destruction has been in the North Slave region, where Alfred Arrowmaker hunts and traps.

“I went out weeks ago, looking for moose, and there was nothing there. Everything is burned. There is absolutely nothing out there,” Arrowmaker says.

“I have lived in Gameti my whole life, and I have never seen this kind of fire in my life before.

Micheal Den Tandt traveled with Prime Minister Harper’s entourage for Postmedia News. Summarizing the tour, Den Tandt said it went very well, on the whole. With two glaring exceptions.

Problem one is improving the many frustrations and poor conditions still faced by Canada’s indigenous populations. And, as Den Tandt put it,

The second elephant in the room is, of course, climate change. In the Arctic this is neither debate nor symbol; it is a fact on the ground. Moreover, it’s one the government clearly recognizes, at least in deed. The opening of northern sea routes now in its infancy underpins virtually every aspect of the Harper government’s Arctic strategy, from the search for the Franklin ships, to the need to project sovereignty northward, to the military’s Operation Nanook on Tuesday, which envisioned a tourist ship running aground in York Sound, near the Davis Strait.

None of this would be happening were it not for the gradual withdrawal of the summer ice. Climate change is a fundamental to the emerging geography of the Canadian Arctic. And yet, the two words “climate change” were not uttered a single time over the span of six days, by the PM or any of his ministers, that I am aware of. At this late juncture, with the Arctic so central to their plans, that is simply astonishing.

Readers who are still with me are probably interested in the Arctic as a region. So I wanted to call attention to a fascinating article in the New York Times on the mystery of what happened to the Dorset, an Arctic people who survived well in isolation for 4,000 years before vanishing about 700 years ago.

The article concerns a new study published in Science Magazine this August ”The genetic prehistory of the New World Arctic“ which examined DNA evidence to conclude the Dorset were not absorbed into surviving populations.

Researchers feel the Dorset likely had problems caused by their too-isolated gene pool. But the coup de grâce may have been environmental, according to New York University professor Todd R. Disotell (who was not part of the DNA study):

Another possibility, Dr. Disotell explained, is that the Dorset braved generations of harsh tundra conditions only to succumb to the effects of climate change. In the Arctic, even minor shifts in temperature can devastate marine life, cutting off vital food sources. The archaeological record, in fact, suggests that several such events had nearly wiped out the Paleo-Eskimos before.

“When you’re dealing with sea ice, just a few degrees can be transformative,” Dr. Disotell said. “Three bad winters in a row where you can’t hunt seals, and you’re in trouble.”

Of course, some will seize upon the fact that climate has changed – dramatically – long before humans were burning carbon counts as another challenge to today’s understanding of global warming and its causes.

But maybe the salient point is this: climate change matters. Argue all you like about what causes it. Just admit that some of these shifts become issues of survival.

A striking image from the Prime Minister's 2014 Arctic tour.

A striking image from the Prime Minister’s 2014 Arctic tour. Photo: PMO