Thomas Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty

This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

John F. Kennedy, during a 1962 Nobel Prize dinner

The title above is a biography by John B. Boles that I just finished. Normally I’d do a book review, but the subject himself is so fascinating I’d rather just riff on Jefferson than critique the book. Buckle your seat belts.

Suffice to say, Boles’s book is a good one-volume treatment of Jefferson.  It’s easy to read and well-sourced.  Fairly comprehensive. Maybe a bit too adulatory, but at least honest.

Before discussing Jefferson, I have to say I was somewhat surprised by what I learned about several other “Founders,” or sub-Founders.  Although popular today because of that Broadway play, I had no idea that Federalist and Jefferson nemesis Alexander Hamilton was such an outright bastard.  His poisonous lies and relentless invective make Trump look like a Cub Scout.  (Okay, maybe not.)

I also had no idea that the man who killed Hamilton in a duel, Aaron Burr (Jefferson’s first-term vice-president), was such a self-centered, scheming treasonist.

And I especially didn’t know that Jefferson hated fellow Virginian Patrick Henry.  Although a great orator (“Give me Liberty or give me Death!”), Henry evidently didn’t read books and wasn’t very smart.  He actually proposed imposing a dictatorship when the American Revolution began going badly.  For years, Jefferson ridiculed him mercilessly at the dinner table.

Aaron Burr (left) and Alexander Hamilton (right)

But back to the dinner topic at hand…there are some things most of us know, or should know, about Thomas Jefferson.  He was the third American president and a Founding Father chosen to author the United States Declaration of Independence, the iconic written diatribe against King George III detailing why American colonists chose to break from England to form their own country, and which was signed by 55 other congressional delegates from the 13 colonies.

More than any other Founder, Jefferson exalted the ideas of democracy and individual conscience. Along with fellow Democrat-Republican and protégé James Madison, he conceived the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and which separates religion from all levels of government. (Government-imposed religion was an absolute given in the Old Country.) He modeled it after the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which he’d also authored three years earlier as Governor of that colony.

As for his own religion, although considering himself a Christian, Jefferson was a deist who felt the Christian faith had become corrupted by disciples after Jesus’s death. Jefferson was a leading light of the Age of Enlightenment, an admirer of philosophers John Locke and Thomas Paine (Common Sense, The Age of Reason).  Throughout his life he was fascinated by science and adhered to reason and rationality over superstition.  He considered Jesus the most moral philosopher the world has known, but did not believe in his divinity.  He created his own Jefferson Bible by excising everything supernatural from the New Testament.  (Printings of his bible are available at a bookstore near you.)

Jefferson lived at a plantation he called Monticello, which he carved out of a mountain outside Charlottesville, Virginia using slave labor. He developed it over a period of 40 years.  (Monticello is pictured on the U.S. nickel, the flip side of Jefferson’s profile.)  Here, he established a 1,000-foot-long terraced vegetable garden that grew 330 varieties of vegetables and 170 varieties of fruits.  As a politician he championed the small farmer, was a pioneer of sustainable agriculture, and was one of the country’s great epicures.

As president, Jefferson doubled the size of America by overseeing the purchase of the western Louisiana territory from Napoleon Bonaparte of France.  It cost the U.S. all of four cents an acre.  He then organized a successful exploration of the unknown lands by his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, exponentially increasing America’s knowledge of Western geography, archaeology, flora, fauna, and Indian tribes.

Meriwether Lewis

After the Library of Congress was burnt by invading British during the War of 1812, Jefferson sold his personal collection of 6,487 volumes to restart the library.  They replaced the collection that Jefferson had earlier recommended the library acquire.

Just before his death in 1826, Jefferson conceived, founded, was principal architect for, and chose the curriculum and faculty for one of America’s most respected public universities, the University of Virginia.  He was “convinced that the people (white males) are the sole depositories of their own liberty, & that they are not safe unless enlightened to a certain degree.” (I tried to gain entrance to UVA in 1977 but was rejected.  In 2005 I visited Monticello, and revisited the campus while our daughter was touring colleges.  Everyone at both places politely referred to him as “Mister Jefferson,” as if he was still alive.)

Along with designing the university, Jefferson also oversaw the layout for the nation’s new capitol grounds at Washington D.C., and his neoclassical architectural designs set the precedent for future U.S. federal structures.

Jefferson was probably the most intelligent and worldly of all the Founding Fathers. (Benjamin Franklin is up there, too.)  Although ambitious, his patience, even-temperedness, humility, and knowledge were renowned amongst his political peers, including George Washington, who made him Secretary of State and often consulted him.  Like so many in the 18th and 19th centuries, he experienced profound death and tragedy, losing his wife Martha at a young age, along with children and grandchildren.

Jefferson lived 83 years, dying the same day as his onetime rival but beloved friend, second President John Adams. It was 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He wrote his own epitaph.  It was simple and reflected his humble public persona, stipulating what he was most proud of: Author of the Declaration of Independence (and) of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.  Of his being president for two terms and his presidential accomplishments…nothing.

Monticello

As exceptional a human being as Jefferson was, his enlightenment was tempered by his place and time.  Even during his lifetime rumors swirled of a slave concubine (in today’s parlance, “sex toy”) known as “Black Sal” or “Dusky Sally.”

For 200 years historians have grappled with whether slaveholder Jefferson fathered children with a quadroon “servant” named Sally Hemings.  A DNA study in 1998 concluded there was a high probability he was the father of at least one of Hemings’s six children.  However, that study also said Jefferson “can neither be definitely excluded nor solely implicated…”

Presently, most Jefferson scholars and historians, including the Thomas Jefferson Foundation—through combining the DNA findings with written evidence—conclude he did father children by her (not surprisingly, Hemings descendants do as well). Biographer Boles goes further to suggest their “relationship” was “founded on shared tenderness and love” and that “the sexual attraction between Jefferson and Hemings was likely mutual…” 

I find Boles’s suggestion of romantic love between master and slave plausible, but unnerving, and it’s one of the few criticisms I have of his book [in addition to some qualified language such as “Jefferson rarely (sold slaves),” “he made an effort (not to separate mothers from their children),” he “(only sold his slaves) out of economic necessity,” and “Jefferson’s theoretical opposition to (whipping)”].

It was in Paris between 1787 and 1789 while Jefferson was American minister to France that their (probable) intimacies probably began.  Hemings was a teenager who was acting as companion to Jefferson’s younger daughter, Maria.  By several contemporary accounts, Hemings was extremely beautiful, with “very light skin; long, straight black hair.”

Slavery had been illegal in France since Louis X in 1315. Was Hemings technically free while on French soil despite being owned by an American? If so, did Jefferson think this mitigated a middle-aged widower like himself having sex with a young, uneducated, recent ex-slave? Did love blossom either before or after she agreed to return to the states with him? Can love even exist between a master and servant/slave, or is it always rape?

Soap opera aside, bottom line is Jefferson owned people. Any additional moral crimes stem from that original sin.

Sally Hemings was born in 1773. Her white father, John Wayles, was Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law. She died in 1835 and there are no photos or drawings of her. This is a detail from a Monticello “Farm Book,” displaying her four children: Harriet, Madison, Eston, and Beverley. Notably, all were named after friends or relatives of Jefferson (Madison after James Madison).

In his meager defense, Jefferson successfully banned American importation of Africans. And despite unenlightened views on racial equality/inequality, he opposed slavery throughout his life and, at least at the start of his political career, tried to abolish it through state and federal legislation.  Of course, his efforts were fruitless, primarily due to violently intransigent southern politicians who, two generations later, would finally have their apocalypse. Of the roughly 200 slaves owned by Jefferson during his life, he freed only two.  He freed five more in his will.  Three more left Monticello with Jefferson’s consent.  All except two were domestic help and part of the Hemings family.

As I expected, while Boles justifiably devotes extensive print to slavery and Jefferson’s immersion in it, his coverage of Jefferson’s American Indian policies and affairs, including their removal, is woefully inadequate. So I’ll offer a few paragraphs on that subject.

Jefferson the amateur anthropologist admired Indians and believed they were superior to blacks physically, intellectually, and culturally, and also that they might eventually become ingratiated into white agrarian society as equals.  But even here there was a great hypocrisy.  He stipulated to Meriwether Lewis that the Corps of Discovery restrain from any acts of hostility toward Indians they might encounter…but he also hungered for the land they inhabited. 

In an 1803 letter to William Henry Harrison, who was then the territorial governor of Indiana, President Jefferson outlined a devious policy of using government trading posts to drive Indians into debt so they would more easily “lop (the debts) off by a cession of lands.”

And when a patronizing Jefferson addressed a delegation of Shawnee and other Indian tribes in 1809, hoping to win them over from the British, he threatened that “the tribe which shall begin an unprovoked war against us, we will extirpate (exterminate) from the earth or drive to such a distance as they shall never again be able to strike us.”

Then, as now, enlightenment only goes so far.

Indian Head nickel and Jefferson nickel: opposing views of Liberty

Originally, I ended my post with the pithy statement above. Then I thought, who am I? Thomas Jefferson deserves better. After rereading the Introduction in Boles’s book, I landed on this excellent paragraph, which perfectly summarizes how I feel. Anyway…thanks for taking time to read all of this. Peace.

We should not expect (Jefferson) to have embraced the values of a cosmopolitan, progressive person of the twenty-first century. How could he have possibly done so? Instead, we should try to understand the constraints—legal, financial, personal, intellectual—under which he lived. To understand certainly does not mean to approve or even forgive; rather, it means to comprehend why Jefferson made the kinds of decisions he made and saw the world as he did. He was a gentle, well-educated, idealistic man who sought—by his lights—to do right. Yet at times he acted in ways we now find abhorrent. Appreciating how this can be so is the task of the Jefferson scholar, the student of history, and perhaps every American citizen.

Thoughts on the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics

The Winter Olympics just concluded.  So many things happened, some of them even having to do with sport, that I thought a few longitudinal observations might be in order.

(Full disclosure: the only sports I watched were Alpine and Nordic skiing, speed skating, and curling.  Therefore, I received much of my information second-hand.  I’m sure a lot of folks enjoy the bobsled event, but four people crammed into an ugly oblong box and sliding down the ice to cross an invisible line within hundredths of a second of their competitors just doesn’t appeal to me. Unless the bobsled is Jamaican.)

Here are some suggestions for improving the Winter Olympics.  You may wish to take some of these with a grain of salt:

  • Russia and China should be kicked out of the games for 20 years.  If after 20 years they’ve gotten their act together, they can then rejoin the party.  And I don’t mean the Communist Party.
  • The figure skating age limit should be raised to 18.  Why are little girls skating out there, anyway?  At first I thought the Russian silver medal winner, 17-year-old Alexandra Trusova, was bawling because her teammate, 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, was scolded by her Politburo coach after a disastrous performance. Then I discovered she was upset because “Everyone else has a gold medal, everyone, but not me!”
Silver medalist Alexandra Trusova with dripping mascara (Getty Images)
  • If you have to have little girls skating in the Olympics, at least make sure they receive adequate food and water.  Anorexia shouldn’t be a prerequisite for competition.
  • Flags are really important in the Olympics. Since the U.S. right wing loves flags so much, our conservative athletes should be permitted to add their own flag to the stars and stripes during ceremonies. There’s the Don’t Tread On Me flag, the thin blue line flag (I think that’s what it’s called), and a couple other unmentionables. Let the rest of the world see how regressive America really is!
  • Bring back some old-timers for us old-timers.  You know, a senior category.  Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Janet Lynn, Katarina Witt, Tonya Harding, and Nancy Kerrigan are all still alive.  It would be fun to see them back in action. Roll them onto the ice, give Harding a hammer, and let ’em mix it up. And to spice things up, throw in that corrupt French judge from 2002.
“Insert Race Card Here. KA-CHING! Here’s Your Entitlement Receipt” (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
  • Keep race and the race card out of the games.  After speculation that Russian medal favorite Valieva might be denied a medal due to ingesting trimetazidine (she was actually denied due to stress), U.S. sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson tweeted that the only reason she herself was barred for smoking pot in the summer Olympics was her “skin color.”  Longitudes, however, feels it has more to do with Sha’Carri’s stupidity than her skin tone.  Getting stoned is okay, Sha’Carri, but when you compete for your country, give the bong a break.
  • United States, lighten up on coverage of our sports stars. Media saturation of Mikaela Shiffrin, top U.S. athlete in the winter games, caused her to DNF in three events and finish 9th and 18th in two others. Even the White House press secretary pressured her. You U.S. talking heads did the same thing with male skier Bode Miller. There are other attractive female skiers out there besides Mikaela Shiffrin. I’d like to suggest Lara Gut-Behrami and Dorothea Wierer.
  • Since the U.S. usually does poorly in the biathlon (cross-country skiing combined with target shooting), give us Yanks a break and revise the target.  A human shape with a bullseye over the heart would be more appropriate to our unique culture of gun violence.
  • Add a triathlon event.  The athletes have to downhill ski, then speed skate, then perform in an ice dancing competition.  The last event would be especially fun to watch.
  • Judges, keep a sharper ear on the music selected for figure skating.  Although 99 percent of people are probably unaware, part of Alexandra Trusova’s program (see mascara above) included “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by the Stooges, Iggy Pop’s old band.  It’s a fantastic rock song, but more appropriate for an opium den than a women’s girls’ skating program.  What’s next, Spinal Tap’s “Sex Farm”?

I hope my above suggestions prove useful. I’m sure I’ve offended at least one person with them: bobsled fan, Communist, prepubescent girl, senior citizen, social conservative, social justice warrior (SJW), gun nut, flag waver, feminist, French skating judge, or oblong box. But as I see it, if I haven’t offended at least someone, then I’m not doing my job.

Iggy Pop (photo: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)

Searching for Bobby Fischer and American Sanity

(Photo: David Attie/Getty Images)

Our son Nick recently visited us for the holidays.  We both like to play chess, so we had a couple friendly competitions in the family room.  Now that my brain is atrophying due to age and excessive amounts of social media, he destroyed me.

But it got me to thinking about a guy who was once a sort of chess-playing pop star: Bobby Fischer.  Bobby was an American chess grandmaster who won the U.S. championship in 1956 at the cheeky age of 14.  Overall, he won eight U.S. championships, including a rare 11-0 victory in 1963-64, the only perfect score in the tournament’s history. He’s mainly known for his Cold War rivalry with a Russian named Boris Spassky.  In 1972 he defeated Spassky to become World Chess Champion.

Fischer had his title revoked in 1975 after making outrageous demands prior to a match with Anatoly Karpov.  Some think he did it deliberately because his chess skills were so far beyond anyone else, and he had nothing else to prove.

I didn’t learn chess until I was 15, but I competed for my high school chess team, and wore out the book Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.  These days, since my wife refuses to learn the game, the only time I drag out the chessboard is when Nick visits.

Fischer died of kidney failure in 2013.  I already vaguely knew of certain “personality quirks” of his.  Wikipedia filled in the details.  They’re not pretty:

  • Although his mother was Jewish, Fischer was a vehement anti-Semite and Holocaust denier
  • Fischer believed in an international Jewish conspiracy
  • He agreed with Nietzsche that religion was used to dull the senses of the people, but then joined the evangelical Worldwide Church of God in the mid-1960s
  • Fischer believed that the world would soon come to an end
  • He became Catholic at the end of his life and believed “the only hope for the world is through Catholicism”
  • Fischer got along well with Jewish chess players, but at the same time wrote that “It’s time to start randomly killing Jews”
  • After 911, Fischer applauded the attacks and said “What goes around, comes around”
  • Fischer openly hoped for a military coup d’état and execution of Jews in the United States

Fischer was never formally diagnosed, but some people have speculated on his sanity.

Check.

***

Last night I watched news coverage and analysis of last year’s January 6 insurrection against the U.S. Capitol, and it struck me that Fischer might fit in well with a lot of people in America today.  Not so much because of his anti-Semitism and religious obsessions—which are bad enough—but because of his anti-rationalism and conspiracy obsessions.

Today, America has an entire political party—the Republican Party—that has hitched its wagon to an autocratic demagogue who continues to spread a Big Lie about an election result.  Not to mention who once ridiculed the coronavirus threat as being a Democratic conspiracy (and views man-made climate change as a worldwide liberal conspiracy).

The PBS show Frontline just aired a documentary that reveals conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremism have only gotten worse since a year ago.

And House Republican Liz Cheney was unseated earlier this year from her conference chair because she condemned Trump for instigating the January 6 riot and implored her fellow Republicans to stand up to him and his catacomb of lies. (Obviously, they haven’t.)

Cheney’s father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the most conservative Republicans during the Bush II era (and called “Darth Vader” by critics for his hawkishness and advocacy of torture as policy), was quoted as saying today’s Republican leaders don’t resemble “any of the folks I knew.”

The two Cheneys were surrounded by Democrats and the only Republicans present in the House during a moment of silence yesterday.

***

One would think things couldn’t get much worse than January 6, 2021.  But according to George Packer, staff writer at The Atlantic and part of a panel on PBS Newshour yesterday, the insurrection is probably just a harbinger, a “warning shot”:

How can one overreact to a mortal threat to American democracy, the first in my lifetime that actually seems to be on a road toward making it impossible for the popular will to be respected at the ballot box?

That’s been the goal of all these bills passed or debated across legislatures in Georgia, in Arizona, in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, which are not just about restricting access to the ballot, but are about putting elections in the hands of reliable partisans, so that, next time around, we will have states that claim that the election was somehow wrongly held, and that it’s thrown into the hands of a partisan legislature, which sends its own electors to Congress to choose the next president.

When you have a compelling but divisive leader, and a political party that falls in behind him, and you can convince enough people to believe in unfounded conspiracies…anything can happen.  Witness 1930s Germany. Witness 2022 America.

While you can’t formally diagnose a nation, some people (like myself) have speculated on America’s sanity. 

Checkmate.

COVID-19 in Cartoon America

Watching “CBS Sunday Morning” this morning drove home a startling statistic: the United States ranks number 48 in the world for percentage of citizens who have been vaccinated for COVID-19.

I knew things were bad here.  A story on that same program revealed that the social media platform Facebook is, once again, under fire.  This time it’s for permitting the spread of misinformation on COVID-19—such as that the vaccine contains a microchip allowing the government to monitor us—that is leading directly to people’s deaths.

Researchers analyzing Facebook misinformation, not surprisingly, had their Facebook accounts shut down.  And Facebook, not surprisingly, declined a “Sunday Morning” request for an interview.

I’m far from being an admirer of Mark Zuckerberg, and I have a lot of issues with Facebook, despite being a moderate user.  But one thing Zuckerberg said hit me in the gut.  He implied maybe the problem isn’t so much Facebook, but America, since other countries are less inclined to get suckered by false information on social media platforms.  Ignoring his garbled English, he said “I think that there’s that’s something unique in our ecosystem here.”

My position is that, like other deadly pursuits such as tobacco use, hard drug experimentation, and irresponsible sex, if adults exercise their freedom of choice by choosing ideologically-driven rumors, conspiracy theories, and cartoon science, we shouldn’t bemoan any consequences befalling them.  The problem is, their “viral” stupidity have consequences for the rest of us.  And maybe there is something unique here in America that contributes to our embrace of lies and the lying liars that tell them.

What might this unique condition be?

I’ve always believed that education, not military or economic might, is the key to a population’s well-being.  However, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that, while the U.S. scores high in upper secondary education (i.e. high school) graduation rates, it is below average in student reading, math, and science skills.  Per the OECD’s latest (2015) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, the U.S. ranks 25th out of 40 OECD-member nations. Just behind Latvia.

In other words, we’re spitting out high school graduates like assembly line widgets, but many of these widgets are flawed and mucking up the entire machine.

Certainly there are other factors in our embrace of polluted information: an inordinate (or perhaps warranted) distrust of government compared to other countries; a gaping ideological divide that drives the most fanatical ideologues toward irresponsible leaders and media outlets; deep-rooted cultural fears and prejudices.

But doesn’t education overcome much of the above?  Maybe not.

Just yesterday I learned that the father of one of our daughter’s friends tested positive for the coronavirus and is now resting not so comfortably in a hospital bed.  Of course, he’s unvaccinated.  Evidently he has, or perhaps had, a strong ideological opposition to vaccines (and evidently doesn’t care about spreading the virus to others).  His daughter, at one time livid with him for being so stubborn and selfish, is now wringing her hands with worry.  I don’t know his educational background, but his daughter attended one of the best and most expensive private schools in the city, so I’m assuming this guy has a college degree, or at minimum a high-school diploma.

And I have an old schoolmate who graduated with honors from high school, attended an Ivy League university, and who works in health care, yet who consistently lampoons the president’s Chief Medical Advisor and his attempts to educate Americans with scientific data on the coronavirus.

So maybe education isn’t a match for dogmatic ideology.  Or maybe American schools these days are less about knowledge and more about job training and income earning potential.  I don’t know. Does anyone?

Speaking of cartoons, where’s Mighty Mouse when you need him?

200th Blog Post

…And the timing couldn’t be better, since I cannot think of anything to write about!

So, I’ll do what I did for the 100 milestone back in 2016 and list some links to essays that I’m still fairly comfortable with.

I’ll keep the bullshit canned and go straight to the list, but not without saying “Thank you” to you readers, followers, commenters, and “likers” who have stuck with longitudes, even after my periodic silences.

The Night Watchman

Adolescence is a difficult and confusing time, and maybe more so when you attend a traditional, single-sex boarding school. My school was way out in rural western Pennsylvania. We wore coats and ties, shared formal meals, had strict study hours, and were required to play sports. A lot of boys struggled. Some were there one day, then gone the next. I made it until graduation, and I think what helped me glide over the waves was finding little chunks of floating driftwood to cling to. This brief, long-ago, personal drama was one of them.

Fascism for Beginners, Part 4: American Ambivalence

In 2017 I read William Shirer’s monumental The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It really affected me, and it was no coincidence that I read it soon after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump. It became clear to me that a lot of the tactics Trump used to gain and consolidate power (and still uses, with the assistance of his party) were on full display in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s: attacks on the press, demonization of critics, far-right nationalism, sloganeering, authoritarian rhetoric, racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry, the “Big Lie,” etcetera, etcetera. So to deal with my disgust, I wrote a four-part series on Nazism before the U.S. entered WWII. This link takes you to my summarization, in the last part.

No, I’m not calling Trump a Nazi. But you’d have to either be willfully ignorant or a blind and deaf pig farmer in Patagonia not to recognize the parallels.

The Songs of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

Longitudes loves talking about music and movies. Here’s a link to a review of the music featured in Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s seven-part PBS documentary on the Vietnam War. [I also critiqued the documentary itself (click here), but it’s a shade more hard-hitting.] I’m still disappointed that Ken (“Mister America”) never solicited my input before choosing songs for his soundtrack. I think my two cents would have enhanced his project immeasurably. Then again, I could be overestimating my musical acumen. After all, I would never have picked Ringo to replace Pete Best.

Marching for Our Lives

Like “The Night Watchman,” this one is autobiographical. It describes my involvement in a march in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio to protest government inaction on gun control. Those of you reading from outside the U.S.A. probably shake your heads at the strange fascination America has with firearms. Well, some of us inside the country are doing the same thing. The march was precipitated by a horrific school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018 that killed 17 students and injured 17 others. The killer had known mental health issues, but at 18 years was able to legally purchase an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle from a local gun store. The massacre surpassed Littleton, Colorado as the deadliest high-school shooting in the country’s history…so far.

Both the march and a rally afterwards were significant for including a number of local children and students. When young people have to take to the streets to try and fix problems their parents helped create, your country’s in bad shape.

“How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Social Justice Fascism:” A Comedy-Drama in Four Acts

(A different face of fascism.) Lillian Gish was a silent-film actress who extended her career into talkies and made over 100 films in her 99 years. She’s been called “The First Lady of American Cinema” and was a “pioneer of fundamental film performing techniques” (AllMovie Guide). She’s also from my home state of Ohio. In 1976 Bowling Green State University honored her and her actress-sister Dorothy by naming its theatre and film department after them. But in 2019 the college’s Black Student Union petitioned to rename the department, because in 1915 Lillian had acted in The Birth of a Nation, producer D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking yet controversial film that portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. (Gish was only 22 and had appeared in the film at the behest of Griffith, her film mentor.) University trustees unanimously voted to remove the Gish name.

This is my attempt to make a black-humor statement (note the Kubrick reference in the essay title) about a phenomenon of the 21st century known by its critics as “Cancel Culture.” Should we remove or tarnish someone’s name due to a single incident in their youth, or should we weigh their indiscretions against the context of their times and the full measure of their lives? And what does wiping out a name solve, anyway?

This one didn’t get a lot of “likes.” (Not that I use “likes” to influence what I write about.) Maybe I should have provided more backstory. Maybe most readers agreed with the name-changing. Maybe my attempt at dark humor was too acidic. Or maybe it just went over people’s heads. No matter. I like it, so here it is again.

Doris Day: On the Sunny Side of the Street

The legendary singer/actress died on May 13, 2019 at age 97. I’ve never been a huge fan, but for some reason her passing hit me hard. It might have been because she was one of the last remaining stars of Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” She also symbolized a simpler time in America that required societal role-playing and which a lot of people now pine for…and not necessarily for the best reasons. I’m sure some of it had to do with the fact that on the day she died I visited her childhood home here in Cincinnati. There was something melancholy and palpable about being the only person there on that grey, blasé day.

So I did what I usually do in those situations. I wrote it all down.

The Long, Downward Slide of the Republican Party

On January 28, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) made a trip to Florida to meet with ex-president Trump.  The intent was to advertise to all that “We’re still with you.”  Reports are that McCarthy wanted to also “apologize” to Trump.  It’s still unclear what he wanted to apologize for.

A recent Politico poll shows 72 percent of Republicans think the recent U.S. presidential election was fraudulent.  Now, think about this: almost three-fourths of one of the two major political parties in the U.S. subscribe to a cockamamie conspiracy theory and support a former leader who, through his irresponsible and incendiary oratory, inspired an insurrection by white supremacists against the U.S. Capitol.

This in addition to four years of incessant bloviating, insults, lies, and just plain bad policy that has turned America into the wealthiest banana republic in the world.

I don’t know what these people are thinking.  Do they think?  But the black comedy we’re experiencing now, where GOP congressmen actively promote a political tactic the German National Socialist (Nazi) Party perfected called the Big Lie, refuse to publicly wear facemasks during a deadly pandemic, refuse to hold hearings on Supreme Court nominees (Merrick Garland, in January 2016), or who set off alarms by bursting through congressional metal detectors installed to protect legislators, has to begin somewhere.  When and how did this horror show begin?

To be fair, Democrats have also shifted from the middle in the last forty years or so.  However, most political observers agree that the shift is much more pronounced on the right side of the aisle and is less about policy than behavior.  Part of it is due to a powerful conservative-biased media that erupted during the Clinton presidency and is now a regular news/propaganda source for many Republican voters.  Columnist and GOP’er David Brooks recently observed that “a lot of these Trumpy Republicans, they run for office so they can get on FOX News, not to pass (legislation).”  That’s a lot of power—dangerous power— for a news network to wield, and it’s a major contributor to the gridlock we now see in Washington.  And FOX News is just one of many conservative outlets…shockingly, one of the more benign ones.

Another reason why the Republican Party has abdicated its responsibility as a guardrail of democracy is existential fear.  Authors Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky, in their book How Democracies Die, trace this fear to a changing demographic precipitated by civil rights legislation in the 1960s.  The historically dominant white male demographic is shrinking, due to civil and equal rights, immigration, and an overall more tolerant and diverse secular and non-secular landscape in America.

No group wants to be squatting on the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder.  But white males, who predominate in the Republican Party, see themselves slipping downward.  This existential fear encourages extremism, embodied by, at best, election-year attempts at character assassination, and ever-increasing racist and xenophobic behaviors at worst.  And now, Big Lie tactics.

The slide began a long time ago: GOP strategist Lee Atwater’s self-admitted “naked cruelty” against Gov. Michael Dukakis (D-MA) before the 1988 presidential election; Republican politicians’ incessant attempts to scandalize Bill Clinton during the 1990s (Travelgate, Filegate, Whitewater, then the pearly gate of Monica Lewinsky, which resulted in the partisan weapon of impeachment for lying about sex); the now-discredited “Swift Boat” smears of 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry; GOP accusations that Barack Obama was a Muslim, or that he wasn’t born in the U.S. (which Trump spearheaded, quite successfully, before his own presidential run); the 2016 refrains of “Lock Her Up,” led by GOP leaders, including Trump, despite zero evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton.  And most recently, Trump’s attempt to smear Joe Biden through enlistment of a foreign power in digging up dirt on his political rival’s son (and which Trump was justifiably impeached for, despite Senate Republicans’ refusal to convict).

Maybe the slide began with the illegal activities of the Nixon re-election campaign committee (CREEP) that resulted in the Watergate scandal.

***

So far in 2021 it’s clear that the Republican Party is still the party of Trump, with all the poison that such an association brings to American democracy.  Unless moderate Republicans (those few that are left) have the chutzpah to pull their party back to reality and decency—and if world history is any lesson—there are even darker days ahead for the U.S. than what occurred on January 6.

NEWSFLASH: a recently-elected GOP congresswoman from Georgia named Marjorie Taylor Greene posted on Facebook in 2018 that a Jewish-run banking firm deliberately fired a space laser to start a California wildfire in an effort to manipulate the stock market and benefit itself.  Ms. Greene is a QAnon supporter with a history promoting wacky anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. She also posted and liked Facebook comments advocating execution of Democrats. Despite this, Republican leaders, including fellow conspiracy-theorist and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (see above) have so far done nothing.

The State of Donald Trump – Repost

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NOTE: I originally published this essay in June 2016. This was before the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, and even before both parties’ national conventions. I’m republishing now, not so much as an “I told you so,” but more because it crystallizes the oft-used quote, “In a democracy you get the government you deserve.”

Or as Winston Churchill said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Ours is a democracy, albeit shaky, so maybe we deserved the last four years, as well as the chilling and uncertain state of our future. Maybe we needed a “reality check”?

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

***

The other night a voice came to me, and it turned out it was the late, great, ‘60s protest singer, Phil Ochs. He said “Pete, wake up, this is Ochs here. Over.”

I said “You’re putting me on, of course, God.”

He then sang a few verses about the Vietnam War, and I realized it actually was Phil Ochs.

“I need you to do me a big favor,” he said.

I told him I was a huge admirer, have heard all his music, and that I’d do anything he asked. He told me he was concerned about the upcoming presidential election, and he wanted me to update his 1965 anthem “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” (which he himself later revised during the Nixon years).

Of course, I was flattered. But I explained that I was a terrible singer, and not much better as a guitarist.

“I know, I know. But you’re a boy in Ohio who likes old movies, like me, and you have a blog. I want you to use the framework of my song, but instead of Mississippi or Nixon, I want you to substitute Donald Trump. I’m really worried he might get elected.”

I told him it was impossible someone like Trump could be elected in America. I told him that, ever since I was a kid, the news media and politicians had assured me “The American people are smarter than that.” (Whatever “that” might be).

He laughed. “You don’t believe that line, do you? Ha ha, Pete, you’re so funny. Listen, Americans may know the maximum characters in a Tweet. But do they know the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court?”

“Uh, nine, right?” I asked.

“Well, normally. Only eight right now, since Republican senators refuse to hold hearings on Merrick Garland,” he said with a tone of disgust. “Which proves my point. Where’s the outrage??”

I remembered that, despite a treasure chest of brilliant songs, Ochs was denied even one hit.

“Yeah, I think the outrage might be justified, Phil.”

“I want you to do this thing for me, Pete. And after this new lyric has been seen by your readers – all six of them – I’m hoping one of them will sing it, put it on YouTube, and it will then go viral and prevent a national catastrophe.”

I told him I’d do my best, then asked him if he thought my puny efforts would make a difference. But he said he had to go, and muttered something about “Bobby Dylan” and “squandering his talent.”

So here it is. Please, if anyone can sing, and can put this thing on YouTube so it will go viral and prevent a national catastrophe, Phil and I will be very grateful.

fascist killing machine

Here’s to the State of Mr. Trump (sung to the tune of “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” by Phil Ochs)

Here’s to the state of Mr. Trump
For behind the flashy suit there’s a tyrant with no heart
An egotist, a con man bent on tearing us apart
A bully spreading poison in a country that he’s bought
And the GOP supports him ‘cause he’s really all they’ve got
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the party of Mr. Trump
Republican officials have discovered it’s too late
So now he’s not that bad, and he’ll be their party’s face
Though he’s a sexist and a bigot, he’ll make their country great
The party of wealth and power has endorsed a man of hate
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
GOP, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the rallies of Mr. Trump
If you dare to criticize him you’ll be shown the door real fast
And everything is “beautiful,” at least as long as winning lasts
And he’s fawned on by reporters ‘cause he brings them lots of cash
His supporters stretch their arms like the Germans from our past
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the foes of Mr. Trump
The ones who disagree will get labeled with a name
And anyone unlike him is where he’ll lay the blame
The politics of slander are used for his own gain
Derogatory insults are how he plays his game
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the victims of Mr. Trump
It’s the many he’s offended, it could be you or me
Immigrants and disabled who are seeking dignity
P.O.W.s and women, our purple mountains majesty
Forget about our green fields, he’ll strip and drill us clean
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the money of Mr. Trump
His tax return’s a mystery, it’s locked behind closed doors
His accountants smile and plot on how to move his cash offshore
Four billion that he’s bankrolled and you’re a “moron” if you’re poor
Now he’s bought the next election and the voters must endure
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the priorities of Mr. Trump
Corporations with his name are weighted down with lies
He claims he’s for the people but he’s wearing a disguise
Instead of tackling issues he talks about hand size
When he starts discussing women you’d better shield your ears and eyes
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the legacy of Mr. Trump
A country now a punch line, an embarrassment to the globe
Hypocrisy and ugliness, each day a newer low
He’s used our flag to wipe his rear, the Constitution to blow his nose
If Pete and Woody and Phil were here they’d tell Trump where to go
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

***

A free society without a free press is like a table with no legs. Yet Mr. Trump has already banned, from his events, a number of major media outlets that he perceives as being critical of him. This is unprecedented for a presidential candidate, and it’s not a good sign.

He may never visit this humble corner of the blogosphere. But I’d like Mr. Trump to know one thing:

“When I’ve got something to say, sir, I’m gonna say it now.”

(Many thanks to Sonny Ochs).

source of our liberty

“Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”?

That is the question.  Whether ‘tis nobler…

Prince Hamlet’s thinking leaned more existential than a choice between appropriate verbiage for a non-secular holiday salutation in the 21st century. Still, it’s a question we modern-day philistines are faced with. And there’s an element of nobility and gallantry behind deciding how to answer the question posed in my essay header.

I’ll get to the quick: while I’m not anal about it, I prefer “Happy Holidays.” You conservatives might say it’s because I’m a leftist liberal.  There’s a grain of truth to that (although I’m not as leftist as some of you might think).  I would say a more appropriate reason is that I often employ the same brain machinations in non-political as political ways. Hey, I am what I am.

When I was a kid I threw around “Merry Christmas” all the time (or in print, the lazier “Merry Xmas”).  I didn’t know anything about religion.  Hell, I barely knew how babies were made.

I’m older and somewhat wiser now.  I now realize that Christmas is a commercial religious celebration (or at least it started out religious), but that a lot of my fellow Earthlings actually are not Christians.  Eureka!  We’ve got Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, paganists, agnostics, and atheists galore here in Uncle Sam land.  (Maybe not in North Dakota…but you know what I mean.)  Lots of smaller cults, too.

I’ll still say “Merry Christmas” in return if I’m greeted that way, because I know the person greeting me is okay with it.  But if I’m doing the initial greeting, and I’m ignorant of the religious or non-religious affiliation of the person, I always say “Happy Holidays.”  Like Mutual of Omaha, it’s an all-encompassing insurance policy.  It covers New Year’s Day, Hanukkah, and I think it usually satisfies atheists and garden-variety, Christian-tinged agnostics like me.

(I shouldn’t forget Kwanzaa, a black cultural celebration occurring just after Christmas.  Kwanzaa’s popularity has evidently declined since its peak in the 1990s, to the undoubted dismay of Hallmark.)

***

So to those fist-pounding militants who want to “Put Christ back in Christmas,” like the guy around the corner with all the crazy yard signs, I say “knock yourselves out.”  Just don’t foist it on me.  Nothing against Christ—who, by the way, preached humility and tolerance—but I’ll celebrate Christmas in my own way, thank you.

It’s all about politeness.  Or gallantry and nobility. You know, “’Tis nobler.”  Unfortunately, and as we’ve seen with people who are adamant about their “individual rights” and defying “government intrusion” by refusing to wear facemasks in public—masks intended to protect themselves and others—politeness is in absentia in certain dark corners of the country right now.

But in the Christmas spirit, I’ll offer a “Happy Holidays” to even these people.  And throw in a “Be Safe” for good measure.

“The Lighthouse” (2019)

I’d intended to piggyback my last essay with reasons why American democracy is on the skids. But after Joe Biden’s narrow victory, I feel we’ve nudged just a bit closer to sanity, despite the yawning political, cultural, and racial divide that will continue to exist. We’ll see more attempts to subvert the democratic process while King of the Birthers, as everyone anticipated, gathers his Morlocks together to contest the results of perhaps the cleanest election in history. But to say anything more, right now, would be bad form.  

Instead, I’ll review a movie I recently watched. Movies can offer great escapism during these surreal times. They’re almost as effective as getting drunk, and there’s no hangover.

Those who know me know I prefer older things: older movies, music, novels, gas pump kiosks, et cetera. So it’s unusual for me to watch a recent film, like, one made in the last thirty years. The dear departed Sean Connery summed it up: those making Hollywood movies today are, quite frankly, “idiots.”

But while scrolling through Roku or one of those other bullshit TV toys, I saw the title, promo pic, and sea imagery for The Lighthouse and said “Cor blimey, greenpete, live dangerously!” I also admire Willem Dafoe’s acting. I saw him in Mississippi Burning, Platoon, and Born on the Fourth of July and, although these flicks have some flaws, I consider Dafoe a highlight. He’s a little weird, like Christopher Walken with human blood, so he’s always fun to watch.

With The Lighthouse, I looked forward to getting mentally entangled in a complex psychological drama. I didn’t expect to get stuck in simplistic psychological horror.

Here’s the “story”: two New Englanders from the 19th century (I think) convene at an island lighthouse for a four-week shift duty. Dafoe plays a crusty, veteran sea salt. Robert Pattinson is a younger, green-around-the-gills landlubber. Despite some minor cultural squabbles at the start, they seem to be handling the eerie isolation and crappy weather. Then, Salty Dog’s behavior takes on a sadistic turn, and Greenhorn begins hallucinating.

You may be thinking The Shining transferred to the seacoast. I thought so, too. But The Shining benefited from the cinematic genius of Stanley Kubrick. This film is actually closer in spirit to the one-note Shutter Island, but without a gimmick ending. While the B&W cinematography deserved its Oscar nomination, that’s the only good thing here, other than Dafoe’s entertaining Ahab shtick. There’s no backstory…or story proper. The whole film is a celebration of depravity. Here are some lowlights:

  • Greenhorn fucks a mermaid. (Or is he hallucinating?) And this is a 21st-century-styled mermaid, so she’s actually just a topless, thick-lipped runway model with a tailfin costume
  • Greenhorn violently masturbates to a toy figurine of his favorite mermaid
  • Greenhorn angrily flails a seagull against a wall for five minutes until the bird looks like a bloody rag. (Seriously, someone needs to contact PETA.)
  • Salty Dog farts loudly
  • While drunk, Salty Dog and Greenhorn dance cheek-to-cheek and nearly have homosexual sex. This scene is almost as nauseating as the seagull scene
  • Greenhorn makes Salty Dog bark and crawl on all fours with a rope leash around his neck
  • Greenhorn splits Salty Dog’s head in two with an axe. SPOILER ALERT (oops, sorry, too late).

I’m beyond my self-imposed space limit, so I’ll close. If you want to see how a skilled filmmaker handles gradual descents into madness, watch Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). Don’t bother with this bilge water, which is, like our Demagogue-in-Chief, truly repulsive. Sean Connery was right.

Well, I’m headed back to TCM. And to watch our petulant child-president do what he does so well.

Election 2020?

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First…hello to readers of years past. As y’all know, I took a year off from this blog for a pit stop. But now I have fresh wheels, and—for better or worse—I’m back on track. (And greetings to you new visitors.)

I think my pit stop helped in a few ways. I finished the draft of another book, this one a crime fiction potboiler, and a PK magnum opus with the artistic and commercial promise of an Ed Wood film.

I also created a woodland park in our backyard, resumed guitar playing after a long layoff, and became laid off in June due to quote “lack of work” unquote. But the latter is a good thing. I was beginning to hate the work that was so lacking. And I’m now at a life station where the ridiculousness of things is much clearer, and I can better afford to raise the proverbial middle finger at said ridiculousness. 

Also, my granddaughters are a bigger part of my life after having returned to the U.S. from Scotland. And I’ve been reading a lot.  Books. Most recently I read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. There’s a reason why everyone reading this blog is familiar with the name Hemingway. His is the way to write. And in the spirit of Hemingway, Longitudes Mark II will have shorter essays. Mark I was becoming bloated. Moving forward I hope to express myself using fewer and clearer words. The key word is hope.

But that does not mean I will be softening my views. Au contraire! Things are as shitty if not shittier than they ever were. And I’ll be here to ascertain the dung heap. Which brings me to today’s topic…America’s favorite horse race…our shitty presidential election.

My wife loves the cliché “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.” I disagree. Our Bill of Rights has an amendment that gives me the freedom to complain even if I choose not to vote. (What a wonderful thing.) Now, if I’m too lazy or uninformed to vote, then perhaps absence from the voting booth gives me no ethical right to complain. There are many lazy and uninformed non-voters in America today. And also, many idiotic voters. I haven’t yet figured out which is worse.

But abstention from voting because one dislikes the candidates or is disgusted with the electoral process gives him or her every right to complain. I happen to like one of our two presidential candidates. What sickens me is not the candidates (one of them), it’s the corrupted and rigged election process that makes my vote practically meaningless. The year 2020 is a lot different than 1976, when I first voted.

For me, voting in a U.S. election in 2020 is like screaming “Fire!” when the building is already a smoking ash pile. I voted in every election for years, and even campaigned for a couple candidates. But when a free people in a so-called democracy see flames shooting up, and instead of throwing water choose to fling gasoline, it’s time to move on.

I think. I may actually vote again. I haven’t decided. Even though I’m faced with a foreboding ash pile, at least I can still scream, which is better than nothing. But I’ve reached the end of the page, which is a signal that my essay is filling up with more hot air than a Trump tweet.

Anyway…good to be back.