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.

Speaking Truth to Power in Tinseltown

Olivia de Havilland portrait

She is 102 years old. Her first screen appearance was in 1935 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 1939 she co-starred in one of the most popular films of all time, Gone with the Wind. She was romantically linked with billionaire Howard Hughes, actor Jimmy Stewart, and director John Huston. She has won two Academy Awards for Best Actress, been nominated for three other Oscars, and been awarded or nominated for multiple other acting trophies.

She changed the face of Hollywood in the mid-1940s with the De Havilland Law, which helped terminate the oppressive “studio system” by freeing artists from tyrannical labor contracts.

She was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II. She received the highest order of merit in France, the Légion d’Honneur, from Nicolas Sarkozy. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts by George W. Bush. Since 1956, she has lived in the same three-story house in Paris.

Olivia de Havilland is the last surviving actor of 1930s Hollywood, and one of the last of its Golden Age. She’s also the last person one would think would be compelled to file another lawsuit, this one an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. But in these surreal days of infantile tweets by U.S. presidents, when up is down and down is up…anything is possible.

***

In 2017, a mini-series called Feud: Bette and Joan came out on FX Networks. It concerns actress Bette Davis, who was supposedly very feisty, and actress Joan Crawford, supposedly extremely vain (even for Hollywood). The two notoriously clashed during and after the 1962 production of the macabre film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The recent Feud stars Susan Sarandon as Davis, and Jessica Lange as Crawford.

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Movie still from Baby Jane.  Crawford is on left, Davis is on right.

Olivia de Havilland knew and worked with both Davis and Crawford. Her character, portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones, narrates Feud. However, de Havilland was never consulted before or during the making of the series.  

I have not seen Feud, so I can’t comment on its artistic merits. But judging from the subject matter, it sounds not unlike most of the glossy soap-opera trash that Hollywood often promotes as serious “drama” today. (According to de Havilland’s 112-page petition, the mini-series is devoted to “the theme of women actors cat-fighting, using vulgar language, and backstabbing one another.”)

Miss de Havilland’s lawsuit argues that Feud and executive producer Ryan Murphy (previous credit: The People v. O.J. Simpson), take considerable liberties with the truth, to put it politely. But this isn’t unusual in Hollywood (or anywhere else, for that matter). Ever since D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1915, which depicts the Ku Klux Klan as heroic, historical truth has been a malleable commodity in moving pictures. Usually, the factual acrobatics are for artistic and commercial benefit. Sometimes there’s a political or social agenda involved, as with Griffith’s film.

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Davis and de Havilland during the Baby Jane follow-up, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). De Havilland replaced Crawford early on. (Joe Farrington/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

But sometimes these artistic liberties cross a threshold and create false impressions that have a deleterious effect on peoples’ character. Such is the claim of Miss de Havilland and her legal team.

Specifically, and related directly to her, de Havilland objects to a scene where she refers to her late sister, actress Joan Fontaine (with whom de Havilland had a cold relationship), as a “bitch.” She also objects to a scene where she makes snide remarks about Frank Sinatra’s alcohol use. The fact that Feud is presented as semi-documentary lends additional weight to de Havilland’s grievance.

Now, these Tinseltown skirmishes may seem petty and inconsequential to most of us. We’ve been raised in an age of constant media diversion, where fact and fantasy often coexist and overlap, and where manners are seemingly…well… “gone with the wind.” We live in a much cruder time. But Olivia de Havilland is from an earlier era. A time when unwritten codes of conduct were adhered to, and not everything—whether fact or fantasy—was splashed onto a screen. Freedom of speech and artistic license are one thing. But libeling someone in the name of art is another.

“Tens of millions of people* viewed “Feud,” and for a new generation, most likely all they know of Petitioner is found in the unauthorized lies and mischaracterization of her life, her work, and her nature as put forward in that series…This false portrayal has damaged Petitioner’s reputation.” (from Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, Oliva de Havilland, DBE, Petitioner v. FX Networks, LLC and Pacific 2.1 Entertainment Group, Inc.).

The Supreme Court appeal was filed in September. It follows an original petition in March 2017, which was struck down by two appeals courts, including the California Supreme Court. In both cases, Murphy and FX Networks successfully used the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to justify their “artistic license” to reputedly stretch the truth and stain the character of both living and dead persons.

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De Havilland, circa 1940 (Photofest)

In earlier essays, longitudes has touched on issues related to the First Amendment, which protects Americans’ freedom of speech, religion, press, and right to peaceably assemble. Television stars and their supporters have flaunted the Constitution to defend the right to employment after employer termination for vulgar, bigoted remarks (Duck Dynasty vs. U.S. Constitution). Armed political activists have clumsily brandished the Constitution while illegally occupying federal land (This Land is Your Land: Domestic Terrorism in Oregon).

We’ve also seen the U.S. Supreme Court misinterpret the First Amendment in order to protect corporations and enable them to donate unlimited amounts of money to the political candidates they hope will serve their purposes (Citizens United v. FEC).

Longitudes is an enthusiastic fan of Olivia de Havilland. Anyone who has seen either The Heiress or The Snake Pit is aware of her immense talent, not to mention her beauty. But that’s not why this blog supports her in her campaign for truth and decency. It’s because the First Amendment was not intended by the Founders to protect businesses like FX Networks from fictionalizing, in a negative manner, the words and actions of people in the pursuit of commerce, and in the guise of “art.”

Unfortunately, judging from certain recent court decisions where the First Amendment is involved, and the unprecedented clout of U.S. industry today, longitudes doesn’t hold out much hope for Miss de Havilland.

Then again—like a rubber ball bouncing between walls in a closed room—American laws have never been fixed, and their trajectories are purely determined by whomever is doing the bouncing at any given time.

Alice in Wonderland play promo card_1933

Promo card of de Havilland in play Alice in Wonderland, 1933.

* Variety magazine reported that 5.1 million people total watched Feud when first broadcast.

(Header photo: Laura Stevens, Variety)

Fantastic Lies One Could Live With

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Peder C. Lund died last year. His company died with him.

I don’t expect many of you to know Peder (pronounced PAY-der). Only unless you’re the type that stockpiles nitro-glycerin and regularly dons camo fatigues on trips to the 7-11.

I didn’t know his name until recently. But many years ago, Peder and I crossed paths. I’ll go into that later. Right now I’ll (try to) describe the man and what he did in life.

Lund was the co-founder and owner of Paladin Press, founded in 1970 by Lund and a fellow Vietnam Green Beret, Robert K. Brown. This publishing firm, based in Boulder, Colorado, produced instructional books and videos with titles like How to Kill Tanks, The Revenge Encyclopedia, How to Shoot Your M16/AR-15 in Training and Combat, The Ultimate Sniper, How to Open Locks Without Keys or Picks

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Typical tacky Paladin Press book cover

You get the picture. Not long after the company’s founding, Brown sold his interest to Lund and started the comparatively tame Soldier of Fortune magazine (emphasis on “comparatively”).

Paladin Press specialized in how-to manuals about killing, in addition to more innocuous, garden-variety gun, ammo, and martial arts books. All were characterized by bad writing and tacky graphics. One of their more ivy-league and humorous publications is How to Get Rich as a Televangelist or Faith Healer. The author, one Bill Wilson (probably a pseudonym), claims his book teaches “how to tailor your message for maximum gain, and…weasel out of trouble when your lavish lifestyle or personal misconduct hits the fan.”

Snipers and televangelists. Like peanut butter and jelly.

Lund knew the makeup of his buyers, and he supplied their dope. Who were the buyers? Well, the government-phobic right wing, for starters. Venture to the fringe of this species, and you encounter a more dangerous sub-species. Insecure men; outsiders who find identity, acceptance, and machismo in paramilitary clubs… perpetually adolescent, excessively nationalistic, and probably racist; white males with survivalist obsessions, plagued with small minds and, if you believe some people, small genitals. And here and there, a few clinical sickos. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was a customer for Paladin’s Homemade C-4: A Recipe for Survival.

(I know what some of you are thinking: this pond scum seems to be everywhere these days).

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A skinny Lund trying to look macho on the cover of his buddy’s magazine

Lund did well as a publisher. He built an opulent man-castle in the Colorado foothills, complete with indoor fountain, his own forest in back (perfect for guerilla maneuvers), and an expansive view of downtown Boulder, a town populated by New Age hippies, health food junkies, and rock climbers. Lund went through four wives. He was an adored paterfamilias at Paladin, supposedly paying and treating his employees well, and each year he rewarded their loyalty with a free trip to Baja. On the outside, he cultivated the image of an average, common-sense, all-American small businessman.

Then in 1996, Lund and Paladin made national news. They were sued by a Maryland family who claimed a Paladin book called Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors was used by a contract killer, James Perry, in the assassination killings of three family members, including a quadriplegic boy, to get trust fund money. The case became a First Amendment cause cèlébre. The ACLU, New York Times, and Washington Post jumped to Paladin’s defense. The case went as high as the Supreme Court (which refused to hear it), and eventually was settled out of court, with the family receiving millions in damages.

Lund claimed he didn’t want to settle, but his insurance company pressed for it. Paladin destroyed all warehouse copies of Hit Man.

The author of Hit Man, who used the pseudonym “Rex Feral” (Rex is Latin for “king,” and feral means “wild”) was never implicated. Writer Karen Abbott was able to track down the real Rex Feral. It turns out she was a divorced mother of two who lived in a trailer park and got her ideas from TV, movies, and mystery novels… (Isn’t America great??). When Abbot pressed for a personal interview, the woman declined, saying she didn’t want to be a hero, “tragic or otherwise. I just want to sit on my rocker on my porch and tell my grandsons stories they’re certain are fantastic lies.”

hit man

Paladin Press’s most notorious title

After the Hit Man case, Lund continued to publish his how-to books on killing, but the rise of web journalism gradually took the steam out of Paladin. He died on June 3, 2017 while on vacation in Finland. Paladin Press closed its doors this past December.

***

Earlier, I said that I once met Lund. Here’s what happened:

I was just out of school, confused about what I wanted to do, and living in Boulder. Back then, my road map was the beat classic On the Road, so I did a lot of tramping. I was returning to Boulder from Cheyenne, Wyoming. I was dirty and beat and just wanted to collapse on my bed in the boarding house. But my extended right thumb was getting windburned.

Just as the sun was dropping over the spires of the Rockies, a shiny Porsche passed, then eased into the gravel in front of me. I ran up, opened the door, and hopped in with a relieved “Thanks!” The guy looked about 40, with thick black hair and bushy eyebrows. Memory is fuzzy, but I think he was wearing several rings as big as halogen lamps. My impression was a conceited guy who liked to flaunt his wealth.

I’m reconstructing the conversation, but these are the basics:

“How far you headed?” he asks.

“Downtown Boulder’s fine,” I answer.

“I’m headed to a club about eight miles ahead,” he says. “Is that good?”

“Sure, that’s great,” I respond, inhaling his aromatic cologne. “Thanks.”

Then a brief, awkward silence, the kind that inevitably follows introductions between a driver and hitchhiker.

“Where do you work?” he asks.

“At Häagen-Dazs,” I respond sheepishly. “I just graduated, so I’m still trying to break into my field. Not easy with this recession.”

“What did you study?”

“Journalism.” More awkward silence. Then it’s my turn to break it.

“What kind of work do you do?” I ask.

“I own a publishing company.” My body sinks deeper in his bucket seat.

“Wow, imagine that!” I respond nervously, with thoughts of a possible job interview, but also feeling embarrassed that I scoop ice cream for a living.

The guy’s now smirking like he knows he’s hot shit. “Journalism, huh? My company’s called Paladin Press. Ever hear of it?”

Yes, I had. Only a few years earlier, I’d read a story by popular syndicated columnist Bob Greene about this controversial publishing company. Greene was relentless in his criticism. He basically eviscerated Paladin, but only after drawing, quartering, and decapitating.

“Actually, I think so,” I reply, maybe hoping he won’t ask where I’d heard about it. At this point, I’d snuffed any idea of a job interview.

“Where’d you hear?”

“Uh, Bob Greene.”

This response shatters Lund’s previously cool exterior. No longer James Bond, he becomes a raging Bill O’Reilly on amphetamine.

“That f#@*ing liberal bastard!!” he yells. “He came out here to interview me and $#!*#!$!@#…”

(I forget what all he sputtered, but he went on for a while).

After he quiets down, the remainder of the ride is silent. I can now smell perspiration and a little seething mixed with the cologne. He lets me out in the crowded parking lot of Boulder’s premier discotheque. I thank him, shut the door, and walk the rest of the way home.

***

Paladin Press may have had a Constitutional right to publish its death porn. The Supreme Court never rendered a verdict, so by now it’s a moot point. But there’s another law besides U.S. Constitutional law. A child pornographer may be innocent of rape when one of his readers rapes a child, but isn’t the pornographer an accessory? If not legally, then morally?

Like I said, memory isn’t foolproof. However, impressions and feelings are. And my feeling is the same now as on July 30, 1983, when I thanked Lund for the ride then slammed his car door.

I’m damn glad that I ruined his evening.

 

Denver Post

(photo by The Denver Post)

Duck Dynasty vs. U.S. Constitution

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The eminent historian David McCullough (“John Adams,” “Truman,” “The Johnstown Flood,” etc.) was interviewed on “60 Minutes” last year.  He bemoaned the fact that so few Americans today, especially younger Americans, know even basic facts about their country’s history.  He gave the example that, after a speech at a major university, a young woman approached him and gushed “Mr. McCullough, until your speech I didn’t know that the original 13 colonies were on the East Coast!”

McCullough’s a gracious man.  He didn’t laugh or get angry when he related this anecdote.  He didn’t even blame the co-ed.  Rather, he blamed parents and an American educational system that so often de-emphasizes the teaching of history.  One could tell McCullough was tremendously sad.

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Phil Robertson

Recently, various media outlets have been displaying just how historically challenged many Americans are.  I’m talking about the backlash to criticism of Phil Robertson’s (“Duck Dynasty” TV show) inflammatory remarks in GQ Magazine about African-Americans and gays.  I won’t go into how idiotic and bigoted I think Mr. Robertson’s remarks are.  Any rational, thinking human being, Christian or non-Christian, knows that this guy is, shall we say… quacking utter nonsense.  I’d quote his offensive remarks but they’re readily searchable.

But I’ll say a few words about the backlash and how the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is being used and abused by certain people –predominately people with an agenda from a certain side of the political aisle.

Here’s the entirety of the text to the First Amendment, one of ten amendments that comprise the Constitution’s Bill of Rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

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Thomas Jefferson

I’m sure most Americans are unable to rattle off these 45 words verbatim.  But memorization’s not important.  What is important is that we understand what the amendment means.  Which is that Congress shall make no law that establishes religion (Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state”) nor prohibits freedom of speech, press, or peaceful assembly.

Mr. Robertson wasn’t thrown into jail.  He wasn’t even arrested.  Why?  Because he didn’t break any law, because Congress didn’t make any law prohibiting his speech or religious beliefs (as twisted as his speech and religious beliefs may be).  His freedom to drool his ignorance to GQ wasn’t violated.  In fact, his words were printed in a major magazine for all the world to see!  He can continue to drool his ignorance.  And the rest of us are allowed to analyze his words and either pity or castigate them, while he continues to paddle his canoe and blow his duck whistles (I guess that’s what he does, since I’ve never seen his show).  He just can’t do it on TV anymore.  The First Amendment doesn’t guarantee Mr. Robertson the right to be on TV.

Mr. Robertson’s producers suspended him because his words and ideas were offensive, and probably because they don’t want to lose advertisers.  They’re allowed to do this.  Employers fire people for this stuff all the time.  If I’m sitting in my office and decide to start yelling about anuses and vaginas, and approach enough workmates with the idea that homosexuals are sinners, I’ll probably get fired.

This whole ugly mess does have some violations, though.  For starters, violations of empathy for a persecuted minority and – dare I say it – Christian decency on the part of Mr. Robertson.  And that plus common sense and historical understanding on the part of his defenders.  It’s hard for me to understand the priorities of Robertson’s apologists.  They evidently feel it’s real important to shut up his critics.  But they’re not overly concerned about the 14-year-old gay kid, maybe struggling to come out of the closet, who has to hear that his sexuality is one step removed from sex with animals.

Once again, rather than trying to solve the real problems facing this country, Americans are sucked into a sordid debate because of some yahoo who has a microphone stuck in his face.  And half the debate is being waged by folks who don’t even understand – or don’t want others to understand – the most important amendment to their own Constitution.

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“Lincoln”

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It’s a perfect storm: Abraham Lincoln (our greatest president), portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis (Oscar-winning actor), and directed by legendary Steven Spielberg.  How can you go wrong?

Having seen the film last weekend, not much did go wrong.  The movie LINCOLN is based on the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin (Goodwin is the redhead with a slight Boston accent who appears on a lot of PBS documentaries, and who occasionally offers pungent historical perspective on Sunday morning news programs).  I hadn’t read “Team of Rivals” so I didn’t know the plot of LINCOLN.  Would it be a full-scale bio-pic, or focus on Lincoln’s relationship with his generals?  Actually, neither.  The movie deals with Lincoln’s efforts to persuade Congress to adopt the 13th amendment to the Constitution – the first amendment in 60 years – and which officially outlawed slavery (the Emancipation Proclamation was a presidential decree that freed slaves in the rebellious states).

The major players here are Lincoln himself, first lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), radical abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), and Secretary of State William Henry Seward (David Straithairn).  All are mesmerizing, but Day-Lewis and Field are absolutely uncanny.  Field conveys the strangeness, paranoia, and fragility that we associate with Mary Todd Lincoln.  And though we obviously don’t have recordings or film of the 16th president, it’s hard to imagine a more spot-on characterization than Day-Lewis’s (who is British, no less!).  His tender voice and touch of a Kentucky accent remain with you long after the movie ends.   Day-Lewis gives us a Lincoln who is profound and sometimes humorous, yet whose seemingly endless patience can be shattered by moments of terrifying anger.  Or in the case of his deceased son, grief.

Spielberg uses lighting that accurately depicts a pre-electric age, and props that convey 19th-century antiquity without being obtrusive.  In one scene Lincoln is holding a mottled notebook.  The colored mosaic pattern on the cover is exactly like old whaling logbooks I’d seen in the maritime library at Mystic Seaport.  And in one of the many stories and anecdotes Lincoln uses to win over critics of the amendment, he uses whale hunting as an analogy, confounding everyone around him!

Just a few criticisms: some of the minor characters seem exaggerated, particularly a couple timid anti-amendment politicians. Also, a few scenes seemed overtly politically correct.  The opening scene has Lincoln being lectured after a battle by a young black soldier.  It may have been intended to emphasize Lincoln’s renowned modesty and liberality, but this would have never happened (the Black Panther Party was still a hundred years away).  And one of the last scenes has Thaddeus Stevens climbing into bed with his black housekeeper, who then recited him the text of the newly-minted amendment.  Although Stevens supposedly did have a common-law relationship with his “quadroon” housekeeper, I thought this was a bit of overkill (though at least one person I know felt just the opposite!).

Other than these small criticisms, LINCOLN was one “whale” of a movie.  Even if you don’t care for history on an intellectual level, this film is a two-and-a-half hour time trip, with great acting to boot.  It’s also a reminder that, as harsh as the political climate in America is today, it was nothing like during the War Between the States.  It’s a small miracle that the country had a man like Lincoln, who physically and figuratively towered over everyone around him.

I give this movie 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.  And if Day-Lewis and Field (and possibly Jones) don’t win Academy Awards, I’ll eat my stovepipe hat.