The Founding Father Problem

     Since you’ve insisted, I will admit it to you: I really dislike Thomas Jefferson.  In fact, I dislike him personally and profoundly, almost violently – I try not to dwell on my feelings in public, lest I become agitated and make a spectacle of myself, but the truth is, if I think about him for too long at a stretch, I will end ranting and cursing, even to myself.

     There are many good reasons to dislike Thomas Jefferson: you might loathe the American farmer.  You might have sided strongly with Alexander Hamilton.  You might date the decline in American culture to the introduction of the dumbwaiter to the continent.  You might be a banker.

     I hate him because he was an accomplished hypocrite, and I believe that his moral janus-face helped lodge something poisonous at the heart of the American story.

     I’m not talking about slavery.  Well, I am, but I’m not.  Slavery was disgusting – obviously, the decision of the founding fathers to allow the practice to continue in their new nation was despicable.

     But the problem with Jefferson, in particular, is subtler: more than any other founding father (with the possible exception of George Washington), we identify with Jefferson our particularly American virtues.  He was, after all, the author of our most exalted sentence:

     We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

     It’s magnificent – it fills Americans with patriotic feeling.  It expresses the quality about which we are most proud.  For this reason, we have always cherished Thomas Jefferson, as though he embodied in his person, and not merely in his words, our best self.

     But, of course, he didn’t.  Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves.  It’s all well and good to crow about universal human rights, but when you go home and rape the humans you own, you should have no claim on the affections of any nation which prizes those rights.

     We ought to have repudiated Jefferson when we repudiated slavery, but we didn’t: we tried to keep the man while ignoring the slave owner, and I don’t think we can do that.

     Slavery, the keeping of people in bondage, is an unpardonable crime – why do we pardon it for the sake of our founders?  Jefferson gives us no reason to forgive him – he did not even manumit his slaves after his death, like Washington, despite recognizing that the institution was morally repugnant.

     He also cannot take refuge in his age – many of Jefferson’s contemporaries realized that slavery was evil and acted accordingly, including Benjamin Franklin and the aforementioned Alexander Hamilton.  And even if his peers had not seen their way to moral clarity on the issue of slavery, I don’t believe we would be unreasonable in nurturing higher hopes for Jefferson than for other men: he was, after all, the author of our guiding moral statement.

     And Jefferson did realize that slavery was an immoral institution.  He even took steps to limit its spread in the new world; he just stopped short of implementing measures which would have personally diminished him, and that is evil.  A man who looked at black Americans and failed to see the crimes being committed against them would be morally, fatally, blind; a man who saw, but would not act for love of profit, should be damned by history.

     If we are to grapple properly with slavery, we need to stop excusing the men who committed it.  We don’t allow other nations to excuse their own crimes against humanity, or the men who commit them.  Jefferson wasn’t merely a slave owner – he was a head of state, a powerful man who’s interventions helped perpetuate the institution.

     We would not forgive the Germans if they exalted a Nazi statesman because he was the author of some beautiful words, enshrined his image on their currency, named towns and roads and hospitals after him.  The ownership of a race, the complete refusal to admit its humanity, is not less evil than its extermination.  We should not pretend that Jefferson is anything less than a monster.

     It shouldn’t shock anyone that a nation which persists in revering Thomas Jefferson would, in 2016, essentially allow police to shoot black men without reason or repercussion.  If we were, as a nation, serious about valuing black lives, we would not celebrate men who traded in them.

Whoso Rewardeth Evil for Good, Evil Shall Not Depart from His House

Sometimes, I’m glib.

Actually, I’m often glib.  Usually, even.  Always, maybe.

Anyway, I was glib last week when, while addressing a recent Bookends column in the New York Times, I wrote, “Reading is great”.

The fact that I was glib does not mean that I was wrong: reading really is great.  I believe, in all sincerity, that written language, our ability to record, preserve, and transmit information, is humankind’s greatest achievement, our best, perhaps only, hope of progress.

But while the ability to read is our paramount intellectual accomplishment and the great joy of my life, it can still bite me in the ass.  There is so much to read, and not all of it brings welcome news.

This month, the cover article of The Atlantic magazine is by Jeffrey Goldberg, and is called, ‘Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?’

Goldberg’s thesis is this: the Holocaust caused a temporary recession, or perhaps merely a masking, of Europe’s historically endemic anti-Semitism.  The effect is now wearing off, and a new wave of anti-Semitism from Muslim immigrants has exacerbated it.  The hatred that was always there is creeping back out into the open, and while Goldberg doesn’t believe that Europe has found itself back in 1933, he wonders whether it might not have found itself back in 1929.

The evidence which Goldberg marshals to support the existence of significant anti-Semitism in Europe, particularly in France and Sweden, is persuasive; less persuasive, perhaps, is the evidence in support of its increase.  But this is pretty cold comfort: first of all, I find Goldberg essentially credible, and so extend him the benefit of the doubt.  But secondly, isn’t it bad enough that there is still anti-Semitism in Europe?

Anti-Semitism is primitive, and appalling, and stupid.  It was primitive, and appalling, and stupid in 1933, and then we were all given a terrible lesson.

Of course, the Holocaust was much, much more than a lesson – it was a genocide.  But, at the very least, it should have been a lesson.  Millions of people fell victim to a base prejudice: a lesson is the very barest minimum of what that should have been.

The Holocaust should have obliterated anti-Semitism in the mind of every civilized person of every race, religion, nation, or creed on the planet.  That it didn’t, that the deaths of six million innocents only bought Europe’s Jews a century of reprieve, makes me despair.

Six million lives was far, far too high a price to pay to rid us of one prejudice – if it could not even do that, then we are hopeless, a wretched and evil species doomed to repeat our mistakes over and over and over, hamsters on the Devil’s own wheel.

What is the point of recording information if we cannot or will not learn from it?  The act of writing is hopeful: it supposes that knowledge might be cumulative, that every human might not have to start from scratch, that the path to wisdom might be shortened.

But if six million deaths will not teach us, then what chance does the written word have?  What can the reason, the argument, the logic, or the witness of past persons do for us if their very deaths leave us unmoved, as stupid, vile, and ignorant as we were before?

And we are stupid, vile, and ignorant.  We cherish our bigotries and our hatreds more than we cherish each other; we preserve them and pass them on from generation to generation like twisted little heirlooms.  Truly, what pieces of shit we have proved to be.

I have read too much history to have any faith in us anymore.  No one has any right to surprised by Goldberg’s article: given a long enough timeline, man will always turn on man.

I’m not surprised; I’m sad.  More than that, I’m disgusted: what a pathetic excuse for a species we are.  Is it time for the Jews to leave Europe?  The evil in man has made itself felt in every place, in every time – perhaps the better question is, where would they go?

Featured image taken from Wikipedia.

Chairman Mao Will Seat You Now

In 1918, a young Mao Zedong moved to Beijing and went to work as a junior librarian in the Beijing University Library.  He wrote later:

“My office was so low that people avoided me.  One of my tasks was to register the names of people who came to read newspapers, but to most of them I didn’t exist as a human being.  Among those who came to read, I recognized the names of famous leaders of the ‘renaissance’ movement, men…in whom I was intensely interested.  I tried to begin conversations with them on political and cultural subjects, but they were very busy men.  They had no time to listen to an assistant librarian speaking southern dialect.”

Mao was a nobody from Hunan province, and he was ignored by the prominent intellectuals he so admired.

This passage is excerpted very early in Philip Short’s biography of Mao, and I am well past what was, in the grand scheme of things, a brief episode in his life.  But this vignette has stuck with me more than any other from Mao’s life.

Mao Zedong would go on to rule the most populous country on earth.  He would preside over a regime that would kill tens of millions of people.  He would become, by some estimates, the most accomplished mass murderer in this history of humankind.

But in 1918, he was being snubbed by men history has forgotten, and this story has haunted me since I read it.

With how many people do you interact every week?  How many people serve you coffee, check out your items, pull your car around, pump your gas, see you to your table?

And those are the ones you see!  What about the people who clean up after you, fix what you break, prepare the food you eat, pick up your trash, deliver your packages?  How big is the army that serves you invisibly?  How many lives intersect with yours every day?

And what if one of them will become Mao?

There are two aspects of this idea I find disturbing.  The first, and the more ordinary, is the possibility of our unwitting proximity to evil.  It’s not pleasant, imagining that history’s next great killer might be taking your order.

But what frightens me even more is the thought that, perhaps, the clerk in the Beijing University Library wasn’t evil.  He would become Mao Zedong, we know now, but he had not yet.  And maybe, he need not have,

And if it is a question not of ‘When’, but of ‘If’, if he might but might not, then who else might?  Might one of my brothers?  My husband?  Might I?

There are two ways to see the future which lay ahead of that clerk: in one, he would find his way to his role, he would make space in history for himself.

But is it equally possible that history had an opening and that it would fill it?  Who is to say that Mao was the only man who might?  Perhaps many men might have done the job – perhaps most.  It may be that the murderers will out; it may also be that history could make murderers of us all, and she chooses.

This isn’t a lifetime movie: I don’t believe that Mao became a mass murderer because of those slights.  I don’t believe that, if one of these Chinese eminences had simply paid Mao Zedong the respect of answering him, the great storm of the Chinese Communist Party might have turned at the last moment and headed out to sea, that millions might have been saved.  And maybe this whole idea is wrong, and historical monsters aren’t borne of a diathesis-stress model: maybe Mao came into this world broken and dangerous and nothing was going to change that.

But isn’t it frightening to think that, perhaps, some large number of us carry the potential for great or terrible deeds inside us, and we wait only for the right combination of events to draw us into the open, where we become the stuff of statues and nightmares?

I don’t like my reflection in this mirror: I like to believe, as most of us do, that there are no accidents of fate which would twist me into shape to order millions of my fellows to their deaths.  There is no lower creature than a genocidaire – I choose to believe I could not become one.

But that anonymous clerk in the Beijing University Library is dogging me and now, I see the monsters of history everywhere I look, in the world all around me.  Because, if we are not monsters yet, who knows what we will become?

Featured image taken from Wikipedia.

Always She Will Be Present in My Memory and I Shall Never Cease to Bewail Her

I just do not know what to do about Marie Antoinette.

Yes, I realize that there isn’t, strictly speaking, anything to be done about her at this point – our decision-tree was pruned dramatically when she was guillotined.

But she is one of the most polarizing figures in European history, and she was killed during one of its most morally complicated upheavals; it feels incumbent on even the most casual consumer of history to have an opinion about her.

Still, making a close read of Marie Antoinette’s life wouldn’t have felt like an urgent priority except that one of my favorite writers, Stefan Zweig, wrote a biography of her, Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman.  Despite the title, it’s an essentially sympathetic biography (and let’s not forget that, on the spectrum of things said about Marie Antoinette over the years, ‘average’ is positively kindly) and based largely on her own letters.

It’s always interesting watching a biographer try and force their uncooperative subject into their narrative mold.  I had a similar experience a few years ago reading Antonia Fraser’s biography of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, which was a long and heroic attempt to make a real dimwit seem like a sophisticated, evolved, and politically subtle monarch (interesting side note: Antonia Fraser, patron saint of lost causes, also wrote a biography of Marie Antoinette).

Likewise, even Zweig’s best efforts can’t hide the fact that Marie Antoinette was a bizarrely spoiled young woman who, for most of her life, spent her limited mental energies entirely on the superficial and, particularly, on herself.  Despite receiving a great deal of very sound, very clear advice from a number of qualified people (not least her mother, the forbidding and formidable Maria Teresa of Austria), she persisted in acting in an extravagantly self-destructive way.

But I don’t always listen to my mother, either, and if Marie Antoinette was sometimes a self-involved mental midget, she was also complicated.  She loved her children, and seems to have had abiding and deep friendships.  At the end of her life, she displayed great bravery and great composure.

She also, at least according to Zweig, had one great and lasting love, Axel Comte de Fersen (and really, who could resist a man with such a name!).  The two of them, the Queen and the Swedish nobleman, loved each other for many years; Fersen even orchestrated the royal family’s attempted escape from the Tuileries.  Fersen never married, writing to his sister, “I cannot belong to the one woman to whom I should like to belong and who loves me, so I will not belong to anyone.”

He was devastated by her execution in 1793, and never really recovered, though he lived for nearly two more decades:

“She for whom I lived, since I have never ceased to love her…she for whom I would have sacrificed everything…she whom I loved so dearly, and for whom I would have given my life a thousand times – is no more.  God, why have you crushed me thus…I do not know how I go on living, I do not know how to support my suffering, which is intense and which nothing can ever efface.  Always she will be present in my memory and I shall never cease to bewail her…The sole object of my interest has ceased to exist; she alone meant everything to me…I care to speak of nothing but her, to recall the happy moments of my life.  Alas, nothing is left of them but memories which, however, I shall preserve so long as my life lasts.”

He died in 1810, beaten to death by an angry mob that believed he had murdered the heir to the throne of Sweden.

The whole story sounds incredible, I know, but, at least in Zweig’s hands, it’s also moving.  I wasn’t prepared to find so many sympathetic coordinates in Marie Antoinette.  Zweig didn’t talk me all the way around to liking her – the image of her and her bullshit peasant hut in Petite Trianon is hard to shake, and impossible to like.

But most of us are some part bullshit, and some part real; maybe Marie Antoinette was, too.  And I’m disconcerted to feel that I dismissed with prejudice someone on whom I should have spent more careful attention; she was a ditz, and so, like a ditz, I ignored her.  More fool I, it appears – if Zweig hasn’t convinced me that Marie Antoinette was “average”, he has at least convinced me I was wrong.

Image, which is a portrait of Marie Antoinette by Martin van Meytens, is from Wikipedia.

A Brief Note in Defense of Georges Cuvier

Jean-Léopold-Nicholas-Frédéric Cuvier, known for reasons that are unclear to me (it is not as though he lacked for names) as Georges, is one of my intellectual heroes.  A French paleontologist when being French was trendy, but before being a paleontologist was, Cuvier is considered the foundational thinker of vertebrate paleontology.

He is also the person responsible for clearly formulating, and perhaps proving, the idea of catastrophic extinction.  Before Cuvier, the idea that animal species went extinct, that they simply ceased to exist, was considered something of a crackpot theory, more the province of poets than of scientists (Lucretius, for example, wrote about something very much like it in ‘On the Nature of Things’, in 50 B.C.).  Even Darwin, who understood that species must die, did not believe that that they went extinct all at once, in single events.

Cuvier saw that they might.  Cuvier saw an astonishing number of things: he discovered a number of species, made a number of correct family and order distinctions, and he saw it all from bones.  He had a remarkable ability to divine what once was from the little that remained.

Cuvier is not so well remembered as Darwin, and when he is remembered, it is usually remarked that he did not believe in evolution; in fact, he derided and punished his colleagues who did.

That is unfortunate and unattractive.  It is one thing to be wrong; it is quite another to be wrong and gloat about it.  More than that, we tend to hold it against intellectuals who did not then immediately see the good sense in evolutionary theory, in much the same way that we conclude that people who now persist in denying it are philistines and morons.

But there was, then, a great deal less accumulated evidence in support of evolution, and I would like to offer one small word in defense of Cuvier: in France, when he was living, the new theory of evolution of the species was called transformisme.

Transformisme is a fairly silly-sounding word, and not merely because it is French.  Evolution sounds like a process with impressive scope; natural selection is a machine whose gears might, over eons, grind out the diversity of life on earth.

Transformisme is a smaller word – it sounds like a journey of self-discovery, like something the ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ woman might have tattooed on her lower back.  When one confronts the expanse of geologic time, and examines the bones of the monsters that populated it, and grasps for a word to grapple with them, one finds transformisme insufficient.

(Interesting datum: Spouse, who is a scientist, when asked his opinion of the word transformisme, immediately sang, “More than meets the eye…”)

I’m kidding and I’m not: Cuvier had a penetrating analytic mind, and I don’t mean to imply that his scientific ideas were informed solely by how important-sounding the words for those ideas were.  There is no denying it: though his batting average was high, he completely whiffed it with evolution.  But there is a reason that scientists give their own projects weighty names: they signal to other people our seriousness, and the seriousness of our work.  Cuvier, who coined the names ‘mammoth’ and ‘mastodon’ and ‘pterodactyl’, understood that, and Darwin certainly did.  Scientists think very hard about what they call their discoveries – they understand that there is an element of marketing in the act of naming.  And transformisme is a right idea that starts off on the wrong foot.

Image taken from Wikipedia.

Please Pope Sylvester, May I Have Another?

There is a theory, advanced by a German historian named Heribert Illig, called the Phantom Time Hypothesis, which postulates that the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, Pope Sylvester II, and, maybe, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII, conspired to manufacture a new dating system that would place their reigns around the (admittedly sexy) year 1000 A.D.  In order to accomplish this, the theory states, they fabricated a few years, specifically all of the years between 613 A.D. and 911 A.D.

That is a lot of years.  In fact, it is 297 years, and it encompassed, among many other things, the lives of Charlemagne, the Venerable Bede, and the Prophet Muhammad, the Viking landing in Greenland, and Charles Martel and the battle of Tours.

The evidence marshalled for the Phantom Time Hypothesis is…weak.  Proponents of the Hypothesis say that there is “a scarcity of archaeological evidence” from the years 614 A.D. to 910 A.D. (there is also a scarcity of archaeological evidence for the specific years between, oh, I don’t know, 50,120 B.C. and 49,823 B.C., for that matter, but no one is disputing their existence).  They also point to discrepancies between the Julian and Gregorian calendars: the Julian calendar’s slight discrepancy against the tropical calendar should have introduced an extra day per century; however, when the Julian and Gregorian calendars were synced in 1582 A.D., there were only ten extra days, instead of thirteen.

However, the question with any temporal sync is, “synced from when?”  At the reconciliation of the Julian and Gregorian calendars, they started the clock at the first Council of Nicaea, in 325 A.D., and not the year 0 – that explains those missing three days.

Nevertheless, I am delighted with the Phantom Time Hypothesis.  The years between 613 A.D. and 911 A.D. maybe didn’t exist – that is wonderful news.

First of all, on a personal and petty note, my spouse has always claimed to be a descendant of Charlemagne.  I have always found this claim dubious, and am delighted that Spouse will no longer be able to lord it over me.

(Although, on a sad note, with the loss of the Carolingian dynasty, we will also lose perhaps my favorite-named monarch, Pepin the Short.)

But the implications of the Phantom Time Hypothesis are so much grander than the theater of my matrimonial feud will allow.  To meddle with the past, that has been the province of the gods only.  And yet this is a power I would like for myself: the power to create or erase time.  And now I find that it is the province not only of the divine, but of man!  At least, of Pope Sylvester.

History is not, to my way of thinking, well-apportioned.  There are times I would reassign.  For example, I have never been partial to the ancient Greeks; I would prefer to give some of their time to the Romans, of whom I am very fond.  I would happily trade several decades of boring Athenian democratic experiment for, say, another bizarre Roman emperor, or maybe just more time spent in 44 B.C.

Or how about the Antebellum United States – I think we can all agree that was suboptimal.  I would donate the years which belong to the Antebellum States to someone more deserving, or more interesting: perhaps to the pre-Columbian South American civilizations.

A plastic history is so much more optimistic than a static one, and, besides, perhaps we ourselves are on the edge of another leap forward in Phantom Time.  We may all wake up tomorrow and discover that we’ve been gifted several hundred free years.  In a Phantom Time universe, everything is negotiable: what happened yesterday, what happened today, and what may happen tomorrow.  Nothing is set in stone; nothing is done which may not be undone, or, indeed, which, in fact, may not have been done at all.  We can always improve ourselves, and in Phantom Time, we may find we already have.

‘King, Look Into Your Heart’

‘Evil’ is a word which, I think, should be applied with care.  I believe that most cruel human actions are the result of ignorance, or cowardice, or illness.  Some, though, are the result of greed, or anger, or selfishness, and those may fairly be called ‘evil’.

The historian Beverly Gage recently published the unredacted version of a famous, evil document.  In 1964, William Sullivan, a deputy of J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI, composed and mailed an anonymous letter to Martin Luther King Jr.

Hoover suspected King of communist sympathies and had been tapping King’s home, office and hotel rooms, and so knew of King’s extramarital affairs.  A tape of one such encounter apparently accompanied the missive.

The letter, which was sent the same year King won the Nobel Peace Prize and which references it, is addressed to KING, explaining that it will not dignify him a ‘Mr.’, ‘Reverend’, or ‘Dr.’ in light of his “abnormal personal behavoir [sic]”.

The letter instructs him, “King, look into your heart.  You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes.”  It calls him “evil, vicious”.  It tells him, “Listen to yourself you filthy, abnormal animal” and threatens him with the exposure of his affairs, warning him that, “You are done.  The American public, the church organizations that have been helping – Protestant [edited for legibility], Catholic and Jews will know you for what you are – an evil, abnormal beast.”

Threatens him, unless, within 34 days, he completes an act unspecified: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do.  You know what it is…there’s only one way out for you.”  King, who apparently didn’t buy the letter for one minute and saw Hoover clearly behind it, thought that the letter was designed to make him kill himself.

This letter is evil along so many axes: the government wire-tapping of political dissidents, the targeting of a non-violent civil rights leader and the attempt to drive him to suicide, the leveraging of a man’s legal sexual appetites against him in the political arena, the patronizing and caricaturish attempt to play on racial loyalty.  This letter is utterly unredeemed by any generous or normal human virtue; there is nothing in this sorry episode that the American government should feel good about.

And this was not so long ago – fifty years.  I was not alive, but my parents were.  We can hardly argue that these are the sins of our remote ancestors, that we are a wholly different nation now.  Dr. Gage, in her great short piece in the New York Times, is absolutely right: when we decide to trust our government, when we try to imagine what baseness we’re capable of today, it is worth remembering what base acts we committed only yesterday.

Image taken from the New York Times article cited above.