April 22, 2015

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”


The animal characters Walt Kelly created for his classic newspaper comic strip Pogo were known for their seemingly simplistic, but slyly perceptive comments about the state of the world and politics.

None is more remembered than Pogo the ‘possum’s quote in the poster Kelly designed to help promote environmental awareness and publicize the first annual observance of Earth Day, held on April 22, 1970:

       “WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY AND HE IS US.”

In the poster, under the quote, Pogo is seen holding a litter pick-up stick and a burlap bag.

He appears to be getting ready to start cleaning up the garbage humans have strewn over Okefenokee Swamp, the part of the planet where he lives.

Kelly used the line again in the Pogo strip published on the second Earth Day in 1971.

The words poignantly highlight a key concept of environmental stewardship: we all share part of the responsibility for the trashing of planet Earth, so we should all do our share to help clean it up.

Pogo’s quip was a pun based on the famous quotation “We have met the enemy and they are ours” — one of two famous quotes made by American Navy Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry on September 10, 1813, after defeating a British naval squadron on Lake Erie during the War of 1812. (Perry’s other famous quote that day was “Don’t give up the ship.” )

Kelly had used a version of the quote in the foreword to his 1953 book The Pogo Papers, but it was not as pithy or memorable as the line he coined for Earth Day.

Today, the environmental issues we face today are clearly daunting.

However, since the first Earth Day in 1970 many environmental battles have been won and there has been notable progress in addressing problems that seemed quite daunting in the past.

Back then, for example, it was perfectly legal to dump untreated sewage and industrial waste into local waterways or turn irreplaceable natural areas like Okefenokee Swamp into toxic waste dumps.

Indeed, the types and levels of pollutants and environmental damage allowed in 1970 now seem shocking in retrospect.

Current environmental laws are much stronger. And, with some notable exceptions (like worldwide carbon dioxide emissions), most types of water and air pollution have been significantly reduced during the past four decades.

That is due in part to the grassroots environmental movement which was symbolically launched and celebrated by the first Earth Day.

Walt Kelly died in 1973, just three years after his Earth Day poster was published.

The quote used as the poster’s headline is still famous today — and the concept embodied in the poster still holds true.

We can’t just blame the big bad corporations for the environmental problems we face. Most of the time, they are just giving us what we “demand” as consumers at a cost we are willing to pay, and abiding by laws created by politicians we elect.

We all need to our own small part, as consumers and voters. If we do, we can collectively have a significant impact on addressing the environmental problems that threaten our local communities, our country and “Spaceship Earth.”

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Further reading and viewing…

April 15, 2015

“Now he belongs to the ages” – or maybe to the angels…


Three famous quotations are linked to the assassination and death of President Abraham Lincoln.

Many history and quotation books say that after John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln on April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. he shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!”

That Latin phrase — which means “Thus always to tyrants!” — was and still is the official state motto of Virginia, one of the Confederate states during the Civil War.

According to many accounts, Booth also shouted “The South is avenged!” after he shot Lincoln.

Many history and quotation books also say that when Lincoln died the next morning, on April 15, 1865, his friend and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton said to the small gathering of people at Lincoln’s bedside: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

However, it’s not actually clear whether these traditionally-cited quotes by Booth and Stanton are accurate. There are different “earwitness” accounts of what they said.

In his painstakingly-researched book We Saw Lincoln Shot, author Timothy Good determined that most witnesses recalled hearing Booth shout “Sic semper tyrannis!” But others — including Booth himself — claimed that he only yelled “Sic semper!” Some didn’t recall hearing Booth shout anything in Latin.

What Booth shouted in English is also muddied by varying recollections. Some witnesses said he shouted “The South is avenged!” Others thought they heard him say “Revenge for the South!” or “The South shall be free!” Two said Booth yelled “I have done it!”


Similarly, there are differing accounts of the words Edwin Stanton spoke when Lincoln died.

The traditional version of Edwin M. Stanton’s quote —  “Now he belongs to the ages.” — were the words remembered by Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, who was near Lincoln’s deathbed on April 15, 1865.

That quote was included in a book Hay wrote about Lincoln with John G. Nicolay in 1890 and popularized by Ida M. Tarbell’s widely-read biography of Lincoln, published in 1900. 

Dr. Charles Sabin Taft, one of Lincoln’s attending physicians, wrote his own account of the President’s death for Century Magazine in 1883. According to Taft, Stanton said “He now belongs to the Ages.”

The Hay and Taft versions vary only in the order of Stanton’s words.

However, as explained in a fascinating article by Adam Gopnik in the May 28, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, there’s another account that uses the word “angels” instead of “ages,” giving the quote a significantly different meaning.

On the night Lincoln was shot, he was taken to a room in Peterson’s boarding house (sometimes spelled Petersen’s). That evening, Edwin Stanton had witnesses to the shooting brought there to report what they had seen.

A Civil War veteran named James Tanner, who lived nearby and could write shorthand, was brought in to record what the witnesses said.

Tanner was also present on the morning of April 15, 1865, when Lincoln died. He didn’t write down Stanton’s words that morning. But he did later. And, according to Tanner, what Stanton said was: “Now he belongs to the angels.”

This has created a debate among historians. Most believe the traditional “ages” version is probably correct. But some, such as James L. Swanson, author of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, side with “the angels.” 

In his New Yorker article, Adam Gopnik concluded:
“The past is so often unknowable not because it is befogged now but because it was befogged then, too, back when it was still the present. If we had been there listening, we still might not have been able to determine exactly what Stanton said. All we know for sure is that everyone was weeping, and the room was full.”
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Further reading about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln…

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