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.

Freddie Gray

A friend of mine, a woman a little younger than I am and also white, is reading The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.  This week, in the wake of the indictment of six Baltimore cops for murder or manslaughter in the death Freddie Gray, she asked me, “What should we do?”

She meant ‘we’, ‘white people’, and, I think, when she said, ‘What should we do?’, she didn’t just mean, ‘How can we help?’ – she also intended the harder, subtler question, ‘What am I supposed to do with my anger about this? How do I understand and cope with how desperate this makes me feel, especially in light of my own complicity?’

During the winter, I go to the gym most days after work.  The TVs over the treadmills are usually set to CNN, and this is pretty much the only the network television I watch.  During the past few months, I have run while, each week, it seems, CNN covers another murder of a black man by the police.  Lately, as we all know, there have been videos of these deaths, and I watch while these men are killed over and over and over, and all I can think, ‘We should all have known that this was happening.’

There are a number of systems failing in these videos, many policies indicted in the facts of these deaths: the expansion of police powers, the war on drugs, entrenched, multi-generational poverty.  There are more evils at work here than simple racism.

But simple racism is there: there are fewer consequences for killing blacks than there are for killing whites, and police across the country have been exploiting that difference for a long time.  Black lives matter, but they matter less than white lives.  This is an empirical truth and a moral catastrophe.

This problem has not gotten worse recently: the police did not just start killing black men this year.  The national media did not finally develop a racial conscience; white people are not more aware, more sensitive, than we were in 2005.  So what changed – why are we talking about this now?

Because now there’s video.

Everyone has a camera now, smartphones which feel like an extension of their arms, and their own personal social media platforms.  The situation is exactly the same, but now there’s proof.

I feel crushed by this fact: black Americans have, for decades, insisted that they were the victims of police brutality.  Most white people didn’t believe them, and even those of us who did, who believed that, yes, stop-and-frisk was racist, that blacks were systematically harassed by police, we didn’t imagine, didn’t really understand, that they were being routinely murdered by the police.

At least, I hope we didn’t.  Because the other possibility is that we did, and we just didn’t care.

But they were – they were being killed by the police, and we might have done something about it much sooner if only we had believed what we were told.  Unfortunately, and indisputably, the word of the black community is insufficient: they must have video corroboration, even in cases of their own deaths.

Truly, we had no good excuse for not believing the charges of racial violence made against the police.  In the entire history of black-white relations in America, every single time a system could victimize or disadvantage blacks, it has.  After slavery, after Jim Crow, after civil rights, when the black community said, ‘We’re scared of the police,’ where on earth did white people find the gall to disregard them?

It’s well past time to accept this: black Americans and white Americans occupy different countries.  Our experience does not delimit theirs, and the fact of the difference in their experience is not grounds for us to dismiss it.  It’s time for the white community to treat the testimony of black Americans as equal to their own.

If we had, perhaps we would not still live in a country where racist drug laws provide a thin cover behind which cops arbitrarily torture and execute an unknown number of black men.  If we had had a little moral imagination, we might have stopped this a long time ago – instead, we needed to wait for it to come out on video before we would even start talking about it.

So what should we do?

Here’s what we can do, for a start: the next time a black person tells us, ‘I can’t ever get a cab’, ‘They won’t lease us apartments’, ‘They treat me like I’m only there to shoplift’, ‘I was going the speed limit’, ‘I wasn’t resisting arrest’, ‘They kill us for no reason’, we can believe them.

Image taken from the New York Times

Here Endeth the Lesson

When I was very young, about eight or nine, my parents made a disastrous error of judgement.

In my house, we were absolutely not allowed to watch movies before the Motion Picture Association of America thought we should – if a movie was rated PG-13, then we would wait until the stroke of midnight on our thirteenth birthday to watch it.

There was only one exception to this rule: we could plead historical relevance.  This was my father’s particular weakness, and it could be relied upon: if a movie took as its subject a historical event in which we had expressed an interest, then we could almost always convince him to rent it, no matter the rating.

Which is how we ended up watching ‘The Untouchables’ one Friday night.  To this day, I wonder how he got that past my mother, who was of less amenable mind.  But no matter – by the time everyone figured out that it was an enormous mistake, the damage was done.

‘The Untouchables’ was written by David Mamet, directed by Brian De Palma, and stars Kevin Costner and Robert DeNiro. It tells the story of Eliot Ness’ investigation of Al Capone in Chicago in the later 1920s, which culminated in Capone’s conviction for tax evasion in 1931.  The title of the film refers to the team of men Ness built for that investigation, which includes, in the movie, a gruff old Irish police officer named Jimmy Malone.  Malone’s character is based on a man named Marty Lahart, and is played by Sean Connery.

Sean Connery
Jimmy Malone – adorable.

Of course, ‘gruff but lovable’ describes pretty much every character Sean Connery has ever played, but I was too young to realize that, and I fell completely for Jimmy Malone.  It is safe to say that, after about ten minutes of screen exposure, I loved and trusted him.

So, when he was gunned down, when he dragged himself bloody and dying through his apartment to write the name of his killer in his own blood on the floor, I was frightened and inconsolable.  My parents had to stop the movie; I lay my head down on the sofa cushions and sobbed for an hour.

maxresdefault
Creepy Guy Jimmy Malone’s death, achieved by this creepy dude.

I thought about that this week, as I binge-watched Marvel’s ‘Daredevil’.

As has been noted by all and sundry, ‘Daredevil’ is pretty violent.  And I’m fine with it.  Actually, I kind of appreciate it: the Marvel universe was getting way too cute.  I would rather unrelenting violence than unrelenting self-referential smugness.

And I like violent movies, at least some of the time.  But violence in movies is like horror in movies: it’s supposed to have an effect.  But this week, as I was watching Vincent D’Onofrio beat a guy to death in a car door, just slamming him over and over until the car door decapitated him, all I thought was, ‘That interior is gonna be impossible to get clean.’

I love action movies, and horror movies, fighting movies, gory movies, and I hope I always will.  I don’t ever want to be one of those flinching people who wring their hands about violence in movies, or video games, or AC/DC lyrics – I don’t care if teenagers play Grand Theft Auto, and I’ve never seen persuasive evidence that exposure to representational violence creates or encourages violent behavior in audiences.

But just because exposure to representational violence does not cause violence in life doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any adverse effect, and it seems to me that I have changed a great deal since I lay down on the couch and wept about Sean Connery.  Some of that change is doubtless due to growing up, and some due to better reality testing.  But I don’t remember being confused about reality back then – I didn’t think that Sean Connery was really dead, and I wasn’t confused about the fact that he was an actor.  I was shocked by the violence, and I knew that the ‘The Untouchables’ was based on a true story, and I was crushed, absolutely crushed, by the visceral realization that good people die horrible deaths.

And that is how violence probably should feel; at least, we should be able to feel that way.  I’m not comfortable with my own lack of reaction now, which is a sort of a wimpy meta-concern, I know.  I mean, I am human: I cried at the ‘Jurassic Bark’ episode of Futurama – if ‘Daredevil’ didn’t ruin my evening, that isn’t the end of the world.

But ultimately, this isn’t about ‘Daredevil’ – this is about me.  I don’t want to become blasé about violence.  I am not over-endowed with empathy to begin with, and I don’t want to lose what little I have.  Maybe it’s too late, or maybe it’s just part of being an adult.  But if I can’t still be that humane, it’s important that I at least remember the time when I was.

Worth

I was catching up on my Radiolab episodes the other day, and I listened to one called ‘Worth’.  In the way of Radiolab, it was a collection of stories loosely organized around a theme, in this case, the monetary value of things not normally valued in those terms: the environment, human lives, or time, in particular, time in your life.

The take-home message of this last was that, when developing and marketing drugs, we, both as individuals and as a society, should think about how much additional years of our lives are worth.

If you were 75 years old, and had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and there were a drug available which might extend (might being one of the operative words) your life by 12 – 24 months, would you take that drug if it cost nothing?  Yes, almost certainly.  How about if it cost $100 per year?  $100 per month?  $100 per day?  $100 per hour?  There are drugs that cost more even than that.  How much is it rational to spend to prolong life?

In general, I think it’s overly optimistic to expect people to be rational about death; nevertheless, these are questions which we should be able to at least entertain, if not answer.  I’d like to think I’d be able to have a discussion about my own end of life care, what I’d be willing to spend and endure, and what I would be willing to ask my family to spend and endure.  I am comfortable, at least intellectually, with the idea that my life is of finite and measurable worth.

But I know that I will never, ever be to think rationally about what my father’s life is worth.  I can accept that the value of my life is not unlimited, but the simple, emotional truth is that, to me, his life is priceless.

It is not that I love my father, in any meaningful way, more than I love my mother, or my brothers, or my spouse.  But my father’s death has been the great terror of my life since I was a young child, and I would do anything to postpone it.

I once told him, when I was very little, that I hoped I would die before he did.  He told me with great emphasis that that was the unkindest thing I could ever wish for him, that no parent should ever outlive their child.

I didn’t want to upset him, so I negotiated: I told him that, in that case, I hoped that we died at that exact same instant.  He failed to appreciate the compromise I was offering him, and told me that he hoped that he would die many, many years before I did, that I would have a long and happy life even after he was dead.

I didn’t tell him, but I didn’t think that was possible.  I still don’t.  The idea of living a happy life in a fatherless world is incoherent – it does not compute.  It’s like telling me you wish me a long and happy life after the sun goes dark for good.

When I was young and the black dog of my father’s death would appear at the edges of vision, my mother told me that that fear would diminish as I got older, as I started my own family and had my own children.  She told me that, when my own offspring were in the world, the death of my parents wouldn’t obliterate it.

I don’t have children.  Maybe I will one day, and maybe she will be proved right – she usually is.  But perhaps all she is really describing is the replacement of one apocalypse for another.  I cannot bear the thought of my father’s death – will I be able to bear the thought of my child’s any better?

I think what I’m trying to say is this: ‘worth’ is a concept with meaning only when there are choices.  “What’s it worth to you” suggests two options: the thing you want and the price you might pay, both with value you can understand and which you can compare.  Death of the most loved ones, this does not have value against which something else can be measured.  This is the scaffolding upon which the world has been built, and without it, nothing has value.

And the point is moot.

“One Half the World Fools and the Other Half Hypocrites”

A Disgression on ‘ How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions‘, by Francis Wheen.

I’m reading a genuinely scary book: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions, by Francis Wheen.  It’s a catalog of the absurdities and errors which, according to the author, characterize the thinking of modern Western man: post-structuralism, catastrophism, Reaganonimcs, alternative medicine, &c.

Two years ago, this book would have made me feel smug.  I suffer from none of the pernicious un-reasons which afflict the men and women in this book, despite the fact that many of them are actually smarter than I am.  I try to be empirical, and I think I largely succeed (but, then, again, obviously, everyone thinks they’re empirical).

Two years ago, I would have read How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World and shaken my head in self-satisfied dismay about how stupid and gullible other people are.  But that was before I took a spin class.

I’ve taken one spin class, a little over a year ago.  I really enjoyed that one spin class I took, although I would never describe it as pleasant.  It was in a small dark room filled with bikes armed with excruciating sharp little seats.  The music was thumpy and very loud and there was an extremely fit woman in the front shouting at us.

But it was encouraging shouting.  This woman with insanely muscular arms kept yelling at me that I was beautiful, that I was killing those hills, that I could definitely do another, that I was looking really great today.

These were all lies, or at least, none of these things were objectively true.  I didn’t look beautiful or even great – I looked horrible, like a sweating person in bad pain who wasn’t going to be able to sit comfortably for a week.  And I was not “killing” the “hills”  – I was lurching up them in near-despair.

Nevertheless, I believed everything the woman screamed at me that day.  Somehow the dark and the music and the numbing pain and the arms and the yelling combined to make me love that shrieking woman, and I would have followed her into battle if she had asked me.  Yet I remember that somehow, in the dank thrumming spin room, it managed to occur to me how cultish my feelings were.

I didn’t care at all – I was having a blast.  But it was humbling: I was susceptible to spin class-level manipulation, which is not, let’s face it, super-sophisticated.  And I knew I was being manipulated, and it still didn’t matter to me: feeling pumped in that moment was worth more than occupying my precious intellectual high-ground.

I don’t think I betrayed the Enlightenment by enjoying my spin class.  But we all abandon the strict precepts of reason every once in a while to make our world a little more comfortable.  That doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t make it admirable: ideally, we would all be empirical all the time.  We would be data-driven: we would not believe what is not true, and when we do not possess sufficient data, we would remain agnostic.

But someone who actually did that would be insufferable.  We must act on what we believe we know and we must, in a world of contradictions, at some point choose to believe something: I chose to believe in that moment that I was a hill-crushing goddess.  I think that the best that we can reasonably do is change our minds when new information requires it: when I saw myself in the mirrors in the hallway after class, I quickly revised my estimation.  We’re all going to turn out to have been wrong about much of what we believe, whether we like it or not – in the meantime, we might as well spin.

Title quotation by Thomas Jefferson. Featured image, from Thomas Paine’s Age Of Reason, taken from rationalrevolution.net.

There But For the Grace of God Go I

Brian Williams is having a bad week.

Why? Because he has been going around telling a story that isn’t true, and when he was confronted, he made an apology that also wasn’t true.

The problem seems to be that, while Brian Williams has been claiming that in Iraq in 2003 he was in a helicopter that was shot down by an RPG, he was not.  In his apology, he said that it was the helicopter in front of him that was shot down and that he had since conflated the two in his mind; however, that also appears to be untrue – it appears his helicopter was nowhere near the helicopter that was shot down.

And now, pending an investigation by NBC, he has self-suspended his anchor duties for “a few days” while the media and Internet roil with outrage.

We’re never going to get tired of this, are we, this pretending that I am holier than thou?  It’s never going to get old, watching people tear each other down for things most, if not all, of us do.  Mark my words: when the last two men left on the planet face each other, one will burn the other for something they both did the day before.

Show me a man who has never lied, and I’ll show you a man who’s lying to you right now.  Whether Brian Williams lied or strategically misremembered really doesn’t matter – either way, he succumbed to an impulse so normal and human it wouldn’t bear mentioning except that he’s being pilloried for it.

It is so tempting to make the story bigger, scarier, to become the center of it, to seem braver, better, more important.  People’s reactions are so rewarding, their awe, their interest.  Stories grow under the light of admiring attention, sometimes without the tellers even seeming to realize it.

Williams hasn’t undermined our trust in him in some extraordinary way; on the contrary, what he’s done is completely ordinary.  It’s totally unremarkable, and, unless it turns out that he has been fabricating news stories (and not merely embellishing anecdotes), totally unimportant.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone – well, OK, I, at least, definitely won’t be throwing any then.  I’m the king of hyperbole: I exaggerate my stories all the time.  It makes them better stories, and it makes them more fun to tell.  When I write, or when I discuss a scientific result at work, I try to be scrupulous about what is true and real and what isn’t, but when I’m describing the events of last Thanksgiving dinner, I stretch and elaborate like it’s my job.

I know the difference between the two circumstances, and I’ll bet Brian Williams does, too.  I keep reading that, because he was a news anchor, he should be held to a higher standard – a higher standard, or a perfect standard?

Is it reasonable to expect that our news anchors never succumb to the desire to be the hero of a story?  Are they not allowed to slip up, even on one anecdote, even if, in doing so, they don’t harm anyone at all?  Perfection is more than human, and as long as we keep requiring other humans to be more than human, we are going to be disappointed.  And when we deny other men the pardons we expect for our own foibles, we are merely assholes.

Brian Williams looks vain and foolish – that is the appropriate punishment for the social exaggerator.  He should absolutely not lose his job.  That is absurd.

So I ask, as one inveterate exaggerator on behalf of another, let’s let this one go.  Let’s give Brian Williams a pass.

Image taken from nbcnews.org

Should I Forgive H.L. Mencken?

When I endeavor to admire men of the past, I often find myself thwarted by limitations in their thinking which are symptomatic more of their age than of their incapability.

There are technologies in thought just as in other areas of human accomplishment, and they are purchased in the same way as revolutions in medicine, communications, or military technologies: by the slow accumulation of discoveries on the part of many individuals, few of whom were working towards the same ends.  There are giants, but they are very rare, and they stand on the shoulders of many smaller men.  Secularism, equal moral standing for other races and religions, democracy, woman’s suffrage: perhaps it is as unreasonable to expect people to have anticipated these revolutions as it would be to have expected them to sit down and build an atom bomb from scratch.

Abraham Lincoln, during the 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, said:

“I will say then that I am not, nor have ever been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.”

George Orwell, a man whose mind I admire perhaps more than any other, in 1934 wrote (to a woman!), “I had lunch yesterday with Dr. Ede.  He is a bit of a feminist and thinks that if a woman was brought up exactly like a man she would be able to throw a stone, construct a syllogism, keep a secret etc.” (George Orwell: An Age Like This 1920-1940: The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters, p. 136)

These men were clear, brave, and forward thinkers; it is probably unreasonable to expect them to have been perfect.  But it is always disappointing when men who saw so much fail to see things which seem to obvious, and so important, to us now.

I have always enjoyed H.L. Mencken, and admired him in the same way, but to a lesser degree, that I admire Orwell: as a man who was little susceptible to the pressures of conventional thinking and who told the truth as he saw it, clearly and well.  However, as anyone who has read much of his work knows, he was prone to assertions like this one:

“They [Jews] strike other people as predominantly unpleasant, and everywhere on earth they seem to be disliked.  This dislike, despite their own belief to the contrary, has nothing to do with their religion: it is founded, rather, on their bad manners, their curious lack of tact.” (Treatise on the Gods, p. 286)

I believe that Mencken was smarter than that, and, if he wasn’t, he should have been.  If Mencken had believed, from the faith in which he was raised and which he had never examined, that Jews were going to hell, one might then plead that, though he was wrong, he was a victim of his context.  But he didn’t; he derived his own pseudo-empirical anti-semitism, and I don’t feel that I can see past that.  It doesn’t diminish his writerly skill, but it absolutely mitigates against my admiration for him as a thinker.

I don’t believe that, in this case, saying, “Yeah, well, when he was writing, anti-semitism was prevalent” solves this problem – what I admired about Mencken was his ability to see through the prejudices of lesser minds.  I see this not as a failure of his time, but a failure in his calling.  And I hold it against him.

Image of Mencken taken from Wikipedia.