Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Fickle Fates

Vowell's theme — brash adventures of a rich French teenager that profoundly changed history — reminds us how fragile the course of our common future is, and how that mere fact permits hope in an otherwise hopeless time.

The teenage brain — skirting risk in search of greater dopamine
Between ages 15 and 25, a juvenile male's brain is still underdeveloped in some key regions. Adolescents don't "see" barriers and limitations the way adults do. Thinking outside the box is the rule, not the exception. Challenging supposed limits is the essence of the teenage mind.

The human brain nearly doubled in size about 3 million years ago. Another 50% was added some 300,000 years ago, bringing it to today's 1200-1400 ml size. Teenagers were the evolutionary solution to allow our wetware to reboot from the older, slower brain to the newer, bigger, faster brain. Do it in stages.

The Marquis de Lafayette by Joseph-Désiré Court
Réunion des musées nationaux

The final and most recent addition to our brains is the prefrontal cortex. It winds itself up, kicks into overdrive, and then settles back into stability in the teens and early 20s. The prefrontal cortex allows us to "time travel" as we consider the past, process the present, and contemplate possible trajectories in our future. It helps us plan, exercise judgement, control our impulses, organize and strategize.

Defending its turf, the older, impulsive limbic portion of the brain also increases its activity at this time, making teens act emotionally and spontaneously, without thinking through the consequences. Morbidity and mortality go up 300%. If you bore into the most frequent causes of teenage death, the entire top 10 are related to errors in judgement and making poor decisions.


Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton by Joshua Reynolds.
Tarleton was Lafayette's teen nemesis. Tasked
by Cornwallis to hunt the Marquis, he nearly
succeeded in capturing Thomas Jefferson instead.
In these years the brain shows an increase in dopamine in one small region called the nucleus accumbens, the same area that governs addictive behavior. Teen love is, in fact, a profound addiction that pumps the reward system of the brain. Rejection can be likened to going through withdrawal, with lasting consequences. The nucleus accumbens issues dopamine to the pleasure centers, and if it is not cranking up enough already, loud noises (or music), intoxicants, the presence of friends and surviving dangerous situations (especially with friends) can take it up a notch.

As we traveled to remote workshops in the Two-Thirds World these past five weeks, idle hours sitting in airports, planes and shuttles afforded us time to “read” a number of audiobooks, the best of which, hands-down, was Sarah Vowell's Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. The book was read mostly by the comedienne herself, a gifted voice actor (Violet in The Incredibles), with cameos by Fred Armisen (von Steuben), Bobby Cannavale (Franklin), John Hodgman (Adams), John Slattery (Lafayette), and Patton Oswalt (Jefferson), among others.

We love Vowell's sardonic style and always surprising interplay of serious history with banal bits of contemporary Americana. So, for instance, to her neighbor, who thought she was writing a book about Lafayette, Louisiana:


Washington and Rochambeau at Yorktown
Auguste Couder - in the Palais de Versailles
I explained that I meant Lafayette the French teenager who crossed the Atlantic on his own dime to volunteer to fight with George Washington in the Revolutionary War, therefore I was more likely to visit Pennsylvania, where he got shot. She nevertheless professed her fondness for zydeco.

This encounter aroused such indignation in my breast that I moralized upon the instability of human glory and the effervescence of many other things. No, wait, that's what Herman Melville did in 1870 when a random stranger in a cigar store had never heard of his Revolutionary War hero grandfather.

When I found out my old neighbor had never heard of my Revolutionary War hero protagonist I went and got a taco with my sister. Still, it does seem eerie how one day in 1824 two-thirds of the population of New York City was lining up to wave hello to Lafayette and nineteen decades go by and all that's left of his memory is the name of a Cajun college town.

However, Vowell's theme — brash adventures of a rich French teenager that profoundly changed history — reminds us how fragile the destiny of our common future still is, and how that mere fact permits hope in an otherwise hopeless time.

How quickly USAnians are ready to forget that had it not been for Lafayette, vonSteuben, and a handful of others who volunteered without pay, or even cast in their own fortunes to help the Revolution, Washington's brave but battered army would have been routed, collapsed, and disbanded by 1777, or 1780 at the latest.

Vowell shows us how the traits we can now ascribe to the teenage brain striving to manufacture more dopamine were easy to spot in the young Marquis — in his reckless escape and transatlantic crossing, puppy love for George Washington, irrepressible quest for glory, and fondness for loud cannonades. We can also watch him mature into a cautious, strategic thinker, able to apply his inside knowledge and powers of persuasion to seize and embolden the hearts of others. He is Amy Winehouse in a tricorner hat and spurs.

With a closer reading of history, one can readily appreciate the American Revolutionary War for what it represented militarily: an astonishing feat of legerdemain carried out by the French Royal Navy — Expédition Particulière — with the navies of Spanish Louisiana and Spanish Cuba in close support.


The Battle of the Chesapeake, V. Zveg (US Navy employee)
US Navy Naval History and Heritage Museum
Few today are taught in school that there were no American observers on hand to witness the epic Battle of the Capes that sealed the fate of General Charles, Earl Cornwallis,' army at Yorktown, or that in that final and decisive land battle against the superior English Empire, the well-equipped and trained French sailors and marines greatly outnumbered the bedraggled and bloodied Colonials standing behind a line of artillery supplied by French ships and directed by Lafayette.

As Vowell documents in her inimitable style, the Continental Congress was never more than an embarrassment to the Revolution and it was much more a tireless diplomacy by Franklin and Lafayette that tipped the balance with the French king, his generals and admirals, sparing North America and Europe an entirely different fate.

Had England triumphed, slavery might have ended much sooner and without a Civil War, women would have gained suffrage in the Eastern States almost as quickly as their Mormon sisters in the West, and perhaps far fewer First Nations would have been genocidally exterminated. But consider what might have happened to Europe once George III cemented his hold on the men and material of these United States of England. Fortunately for France and the other countries of that continent, the British Parliament was as hamfisted and dysfunctional as its Colonial counterpart that gathered in York after being ousted from Philadelphia.

It was Lafayette's poignant letters to the French court and military commanders, spiced with a reality check that featured precisely those future scenarios of Anglo-hegemony that compelled Louis XVI to extend his neck (thence to be severed) to send men, ships and looted Spanish gold to aid the barefoot, starving, disconsolate and bleeding Colonial Army.



Surrender at Yorktown, October 19, 1781, by John Trumbull
Overruling Washington's reckless plan to storm New York, the cagey French instead sent their fleets up the Chesapeake where Lafayette had positioned John Knox's crackerjack Ticonderoga artillery regiment to trap and hold Cornwallis and then batter him into submission. Suffering a severe case of outmaneuver, the British Army, superior to Washington's in every other respect, was forced to furl colors, stack arms, and surrender.

Vowell uses the narrative to point out how the recklessness and fecklessness we saw when Texas teabagger Ted Cruz was able to tie up the budget process of the US Congress to close all the National Parks and squander billions of tax dollars to boot — is not a new concept, but rather the norm since before the country was founded. 
When not busy trying to undermine Washington's command or fleeing from Philadelphia, the Continental Congress went back to doing what they did best, which was fighting themselves. By the time the French intervened, the Colonial currency had become virtually worthless, public support for the war, about to enter its sixth year, was waning, and army troops were becoming mutinous over pay and conditions.

She also points out that the choice to toss blood and treasure as a lifeline to Lafayette's Americans was not without cost to Louis and others who went to the guillotine when the full extent of rash overspending came home to France as bankruptcy, starvation and disease, coinciding with several years of bad harvests, and the knee-jerk response of raising taxes.

It is small wonder then, that when Lafayette returned, having been released from prison, in 1824, 80,000 of New York's 120,000 citizens turned out at the docks to greet him, or that so many streets, towns, schools, racehorses and babies are named for him.

Heroism can take many forms. What the young Marquis de Lafayette demonstrated was that even a rash teenage brain, guided by adult logic to a potentially winning strategy, can apply heroic instincts where they will matter. Young souls as these can even change history.

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