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Meeting Jefferson

jefferson_portrait-ABI like history. I came across a memoir by Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith, THE FIRST FORTY YEARS OF WASHINGTON SOCIETY. Through her husband, she knew many political figures of the early 1800s. This is how she described her first meeting with Thomas Jefferson, who was then Vice President:

In December, 1800, a few days after Congress had for the first time met in our new Metropolis, I was one morning sitting alone in the parlour, when the servant opened the door and showed in a gentleman who wished to see my husband. The usual frankness and care with which I met strangers, were somewhat checked by the dignified and reserved air of the present visitor; but the chilled feeling was only momentary, for after taking the chair I offered him in a free and easy manner, and carelessly throwing his arm on the table near which he sat, he turned towards me a countenance beaming with an expression of benevolence and with a manner and voice almost femininely soft and gentle, entered into conversation on the commonplace topics of the day, from which, before I was conscious of it, he had drawn me into observations of a more personal and interesting nature. I know not how it was, but there was something in his manner, his countenance and voice that at once unlocked my heart, and in answer to his casual enquiries concerning our situation in our new home, as he called it, I found myself frankly telling him what I liked or disliked in our present circumstances and abode. I knew not who he was, but the interest with which he listened to my artless details, induced the idea he was some intimate acquaintance or friend of Mr. Smith’s [her husband] and put me perfectly at my ease; in truth so kind and conciliating were his looks and manners that I forgot he was not a friend of my own, until on the opening of the door, Mr. Smith entered and introduced the stranger to me as Mr. Jefferson.

I felt my cheeks burn and my heart throb, and not a word more could I speak while he remained. Nay, such was my embarrassment I could scarcely listen to the conversation carried on between him and my husband. For several years he had been to me an object of peculiar interest. In fact my destiny, for on his success in the pending presidential election, or rather the success of the democratic party, (their interests were identical) my condition in life, my union with the man I loved, depended. In addition to this personal interest, I had long participated in my husband’s political sentiments and anxieties, and looked upon Mr. Jefferson as the corner stone on which the edifice of republican liberty was to rest, looked upon him as the champion of human rights, the reformer of abuses, the head of the republican party, which must rise or fall with him, and on the triumph of the republican party I devoutly believed the security and welfare of my country depended. Notwithstanding those exalted views of Mr. Jefferson as a political character; and ardently eager as I was for his success, I retained my previously conceived ideas of the coarseness and vulgarity of his appearance and manners and was therefore equally awed and surprised, on discovering the stranger whose deportment was so dignified and gentlemanly, whose language was so refined, whose voice was so gentle, whose countenance was so benignant, to be no other than Thomas Jefferson. How instantaneously were all these preconceived prejudices dissipated, and in proportion to their strength, was the reaction that took place in my opinions and sentiments. I felt that I had been the victim of prejudice, that I had been unjust. The revolution of feeling was complete and from that moment my heart warmed to him with the most affectionate interest and I implicitly believed all that his friends and my husband believed and which the after experience of many years confirmed. Yes, not only was he great, but a truly good man!

The occasion of his present visit, was to make arrangements with Mr. Smith for the publication of his Manual for Congress, now called Jefferson’s manual. The original was in his own neat, plain, but elegant hand writing. The manuscript was as legible as printing and its unadorned simplicity was emblematical of his character. It is still preserved by Mr. Smith and valued as a precious relique.

After the affair of business was settled, the conversation became general and Mr. Jefferson several times addressed himself to me; but although his manner was unchanged, my feelings were, and I could not recover sufficient ease to join in the conversation. He shook hands cordially with us both when he departed, and in a manner which said as plain as words could do, “I am your friend.”

In her note book, Mrs. Smith reminisced further about that meeting:

“And is this,” said I, after my first interview with Mr. Jefferson, “the violent democrat, the vulgar demagogue, the bold atheist and profligate man I have so often heard denounced by the federalists? Can this man so meek and mild, yet dignified in his manners, with a voice so soft and low, with a countenance so benignant and intelligent, can he be that daring leader of a faction, that disturber of the peace, that enemy of all rank and order?” Mr. Smith, indeed, (himself a democrat) had given me a very different description of this celebrated individual; but his favourable opinion I attributed in a great measure to his political feelings, which led him zealously to support and exalt the party to which he belonged, especially its popular and almost idolized leader. Thus the virulence of party-spirit was somewhat neutralized, nay, I even entertained towards him the most kindly dispositions, knowing him to be not only politically but personally friendly to my husband; yet I did believe that he was an ambitious and violent demagogue, coarse and vulgar in his manners, awkward and rude in his appearance, for such had the public journals and private conversations of the federal party represented him to be.

(Mrs. Smith likely meant her own father who was a well known Federalist.)

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Church of the Body

I’ve finally published a novel on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback editions. The story follows a young, devout couple who fall victim to a brutal attack. They react to the tragedy in completely different ways. Both experience the world as if the supernatural really did become manifest in their lives. That includes evil as well as good so it’s a mixed blessing.

I can’t really say what genre this book belongs in. At times it’s fantasy and horror. Other times it’s drama and comedy. I let the characters have lives of their own so they get into some wild situations. I take no responsibility for letting them be themselves. I hope readers will see this book as it was intend — more of a wrestling with, rather than a rejection of, the concept of God.

Publishing on Amazon was easy and cheap. The books look good especially considering they’re printed on demand. The first few chapters can be read online just by clicking the cover here.

Culture is a Free Market

Two columns caught my attention yesterday. First was Brent Bozell asking if  “Hollywood Won 2012?”  Bozell believes Hollywood is partly to blame for the left-leaning election results. He cites gay marriage as evidence:

Asked about how the shows influenced them, 27 percent said gay-promotional TV shows made them more pro-gay marriage, and 6 percent more opposed. Obama voters watched and 30 percent grew more supportive, to 2 percent less supportive. Surprisingly, the shows were also winning over Romney voters: 13 percent became more pro-gay marriage, while 12 percent were more opposed. (Did you hear that, pro-family conservatives?)

Bozell likes to blame someone else for his own ideology’s deficiencies. Unfortunately he doesn’t offer any solutions. Surely Bozell can’t think The National Legion of Decency is ever coming back. And since we hope a “conservative” like Bozell does, in fact, believe in less government, he must rule out the force of a nanny state.

The second article relates to the first. It’s “D.C. Cannot Save America. Hollywood Can” by Tabitha Hale. Concerning the election results, she claims. “What was lost was a culture war.” Like Bozell, she thinks Hollywood had a lot to do with the loss. But unlike Bozell, she proposes a solution.

“Conservatives long ago ceded entertainment to the Left, and in doing so isolated themselves from demographics they absolutely need to reach.” She notes, “The majority of Americans do not live in the conservative news sphere. They do not tune in to talk radio, nor do they attend political gatherings or rallies.”

She’s right about that. So she suggests entering the market. “Make good music. Make good movies. Make good art.”

She ends with:

Unless there is a concerted effort to spend time understanding and embracing the culture of the people they are trying to reach, the Right will become increasingly irrelevant. A culture war cannot be won when you’re sitting behind your computer complaining about the state of the nation. Get in the game and take it back.

I think she has a good idea, even if it’s an old and obvious idea. It should be obvious that culture is a free market. Aren’t Republicans for letting a market decide? They sure claim to be. So if “conservatives” don’t like the product, make a better product. If it’s truly a good product, people will gravitate toward it.

I’m not as confident as Hale that offering a better culture product will have a dramatic effect on the culture or elections. There is one thing I’m fairly sure of though. It’s the only truly American — and Republican — way of addressing the Hollywood issue. And what’s the worse that can happen? We’ll get more good movies, better programming and more choice. Bozell’s cultural criticism has gotten us what?  He or his accomplices have been doing it for 30 years.  Is the culture better for it?

It’s hard making good entertainment. “Conservatives” can be lazy about it and heckle those who try.  Or they can get to work and produce.

Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump is about a simpleton living through complex times.  The two overwhelming impressions one gets from the movie are, first, its characters are forever fused with a particular place and time, and second, Forrest remains a genuinely decent person no matter what’s thrown at him.  His unshakable optimism and dignity are Job-like.  Consider Forrest a 20th century Huck Finn — a uneducated outsider who rides history like Huck rides the mighty Mississippi.  His simple perspective takes us through key moments in the turbulent 60s into the Me Decade and ending in the Decade of Greed.  The times were chaotic, glorious, ugly, hopeful. rebellious, experimental, and conventional.  It was a time when it was easy to get lost.  Plenty of smart people did get lost.  The film practically forces us to ask if a simple, straightforward reporting of the facts, flawed as they are, might not be more meaningful and honest than all the ideological spin we’ve become accustomed to. Though the movie is set in controversial times, it doesn’t take political sides. It is not a moral commentary.  It’s not a cautionary tale.  It’s as non-judgmental as Forrest Gump is himself.

The times may have splintered America but they barely affect Forrest.  He navigates the years like the Rock of Gibralter.  None of the big political or cultural events affect him. He’s oblivious to what most of us found provocative but he is not at all oblivious.  He’s deeply affected by his relationships to Bubba, Sgt. Dan, his mother and most of all Jenny. These attachments are his whole life even while he’s winning football games, winning a medal of honor, and getting rich in business. These feats mean nothing to him. They aren’t yardsticks by which he measures success. He doesn’t even care about or understand any sort of conventional success.  The personal is definitely not political, economic or cultural. It’s personal and it stays that way.

Many have suggested he does this because he’s too stupid to do otherwise. Obviously he doesn’t live by a complicated ideology, The guidelines his mama taught him are simple rules even he can understand: You’re no different than anybody else is; you make your own destiny; you have to do the best with what God gave you; God is mysterious; there’s only so much fortune a man really needs; you got to put the past behind you before you can move on. This is pretty traditional stuff. It wouldn’t be entirely wrong to say he represents traditional values, but not the politicization of tradition we have in politics today. Forrest’s tradition has no ideology attached.

One of his favorite truisms is, “stupid is as stupid does.” That’s a pragmatic, utilitarian definition. People are judged by their acts. There’s no point in asking how one might intellectually justify an act.  By this measure Forrest doesn’t do many truly stupid things.

But that brings us to Jenny, his angel and true love.  She’s not pragmatic, not traditional. She’s the idealist dreamer.  She has a beat phase, a hippie phase, a drug phase and ends up with AIDS.  She wants to be a famous singer but will fail. By Mama’s definition she’s the most stupid character in the film.  Yet Forrest loves her.  Jenny tells him, “You don’t know what love is.” But she’s wrong.  He’s the one person who will always love her. There’s nothing she can do to shake that love. Again he’s Job-like in his devotion. She can go with other men, pose for Playboy, perform in the nude, or possibly prostitute herself.  None of this affects his love. But it does matter to him. He “rescues” her several times, like he rescues Sgt. Dan. He rescues him from his “destiny” and her from a rejection of it. Jenny is not a child of destiny. She wants to be free as a bird. She wants to pursue happiness as she sees fit, without burdensome traditions, throwing caution to the wind. But she’ll never truly escape.

It’s for good reason that Forrest is named after General Nathan Bedford Forrest who was idolized in the South. The movie characterizes the general as a KKK vigilante but the reality is much different.  He was one of the most interesting and unusual men of that era.  It was appropriate that Mama diluted his complexity down to the truism that “Sometimes we all do things that just don’t make no sense.” This applies nicely to Jenny’s behavior too.  Even if Forrest had the mental faculties it would be futile to try to make sense of her actions.

This theme runs throughout the movie.  It’s for no particular reason that somebody shoots Kennedy and Lennon. It’s for no particular reason that Forrest starts to run, and then keeps going for three years. He whittles down his Vietnam experience to, “We took long walks and were always looking for this guy named Charlie.”  Charlie doesn’t exist, so for Forrest the search is going to be futile. But how different is that from the war hawks or doves or Jenny who were all searching for something equally elusive?

It may sound nonsensical but what’s the reason for this theme of no particular reason? What does it mean in the context of the film? Did Oswald think he had no particular reason for shooting Kennedy? Or was his reason of no consequence? Did he change the momentum of history? Is history so vast, so complex, and moved by so many disparate reasons that our one reason is insignificant?  Maybe it’s not that we have no reason, it’s that the reasons don’t ultimately matter. Something done for no reason is something done to no effect. We were in Vietnam for no reason even though plenty of people had many reasons.

For Forrest what matters is not that things are done for a reason but that they are done by applying a decent and human understanding of what needs to be done.  He applies his learning to situations at hand as best he can. He doesn’t let things happen or merely follow orders or a predestined plan. The drill Sargent asks Forrest what his purpose is in the Army. Forrest answers that it’s to do whatever he’s told. The Drill Sargent is amazed, “You’re a goddamned genius! That’s the most outstanding answer I’ve ever heard.  You must have a goddamned I.Q. of a hundred and sixty!” We then see Forrest following orders and further integrating himself into the Army plan. Yet at the crucial moment, when it’s a matter of life and death, Forrest disobeys direct orders and saves several men.  He “runs” as Jenny made him promise, but he runs into danger, not out of it.

There may be a hundred reasons Jenny or Sgt Dan could give as to why Forrest should not have done what he did, but those reasons wouldn’t have made sense to him at that moment when he had to act. He never tries to alter destiny, make history, or change peoples’ lives or find reasons. He acts like he knows he should act. In spite of this, or maybe because of this, he alters history and the culture as an unintended side-effect. His perspective is narrow but his effect is broad.  He keeps very close to what he knows.  There are no grand schemes. Yet that narrow perspective gives him plenty of room to make a difference. That’s one message in this movie, I think. In order to change the world it isn’t necessary to understand it or invent ideological super-structures or master plans.  It’s not productive to prime the pump with a war here or an assassination there.  Meaningful results do not trickle down from the top. Best use of energy is to work from the bottom every day. Do whatever has the best possible effect on those closest to you. Do so without judgement. Things will happen because of it.

Forrest Gump is not a simple movie to analyze. It works on multiple levels and has much imagery. There is a long series of leg images: braces, leglessness, strong legs, new legs, running away from, and running towards.  What’s the meaning of that feather bookmark? There’s a lot that could be discussed. But I must say that the strongest feeling I get from the movie is one of a plea for reconciliation. It goes back to the tradition versus idealism aspect of Forrest’s relationship to Jenny. In the political taking of sides that was forming through those years, Jenny should have been someone Forrest despised, someone who was ruining his culture, damaging his way of life. He should have been a reactionary drag on her revolution.  They are on the opposite sides of the culture war.  But she always goes back to him. And he always waits for her return. They are “peas and carrots” in Forrest’s words. When things get too much for her, he’s her rock of stability. The same Norman Rockwell town created both of them. They belong together but they can’t be.

In a way, Forrest’s rules to live by are his self evident truths. They need no rational justification.  Jenny is on the leading edge of the pursuit of  happiness. She’s no more rational than he is. He must allow her to pursue her happiness, never to find it, regardless of her mistakes. Of course he has no choice in the matter, but that’s how it has to be if he wants any part of her. He doesn’t resent her rejection. He doesn’t pass judgement on obviously bad behavior. He gives her the freedom to return whenever she wishes. Jenny, on the other hand, doesn’t reject Forrest as an old-fashioned relic. She obviously expects him to be there when she needs someone. And in the end he’s the one to depend on.  There is a mutual respect there that seems so natural and necessary that it’s a wonder that it’s so lacking in the political rhetoric of then and now.

Jenny is always going to be the brass ring everyone grabs at. And Forrest is always going to be home when you miss.

Fukuyama’s End of History

I’m going through this book for the second time. I’ve really got to comment on this quote on page 276, chapter, “Toward a Pacific Union.”

For the foreseeable future, the world will be divided between a post-historical part, and a part that is still  stuck in history. Within the post-historical world, the chief axis of interaction between states would be economic, and the old rules of power politics would have decreasing relevance.

This is typical Straussian tunnel vision. Fukuyama finds an end of history because he defines history in terms of war. History is not made through economics or science, according to him. The near economic collapse we suffered in 2008 — you’ll be glad to know that was not history.  The “god particle” they might have found in post-historical Geneva Switzerland — that was not history either. Apollo 11? Not history. According to the “last man” thesis we are becoming “men without chests.” Such men can’t achieve the “greatness” of a Napoleon. So says a Straussian and we all should know how much we should value their value judgments.

This is what bothers me most about Straussians. Adolescent boys dream of proving themselves in glorious battles. That’s the kind of history that appeals to them. But to call that fantasy the end of history, or of its end, the end of man? Let’s see the Straussians climb out of their think tanks and live the dream. Let them talk of their own glory on the battlefield. Why aren’t they in any hurry to prove themselves in the ultimate test? Why do they send other men to do it for them? Is this courage? Or could it be that it’s all propaganda?  Could it be they don’t truly believe any of this?

This fascination is fine for immature boys. It’s fine when we’re watching the Super Bowl. But when grown men can’t shake their boyhood it’s pathetic, if not dangerous.

Brent Bozell is so Special

We can always rely upon Brent Bozell for some seriously shrill whining. Yesterday it was The Secular Media Vs. Religious Liberty. Bozell is irritated Catholic organizations will be forced to supply contraceptive “insurance” to its employees. Supposedly this is a war on religion even though a mere 51% of Catholic control of a hospital is enough for some to claim it’s a “religious” institution. And this “religious” institution is not above taking secular Medicare “donations” is it? What a hoot.

Guess what Bozell? This so-called war against Christianity is nothing more than you and your buddies wanting special treatment again. There are plenty of people like me who have no religious leanings yet don’t want to “insure” contraception either. But I’m not delusional enough to scream “War!”

Selfishness is Bozell’s game — but more of a collectivist selfishness. His interest group is just so special. Look at us!  — that’s mostly what we hear from him. If he was serious he’d forget the religious angle and concentrate on the absurdity of “insuring” contraception for any person anywhere. We might as well “insure” against toothpaste. Birth control is a normal part of living. Pregnancy is not a disease. There’s no need to mention faith concerning this issue at all. But Bozell and other religious extremists see practically every issue in religious terms. It’s why they speak mostly to the choir.

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