Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle To Remake America


The author is, quite clearly conservative (though I read that he received no little flak for having admitted to having voted for Obama in 2008). Not a Republican writer, per se, but something one might find favorably mentioned by the folks at the James Wilson Institute. Unsettlingly, Gutzman, while (grudgingly?) acknowledging Jefferson’s fathering of Sally Hemmings children, he also writes sympathetically of unreconstructed historians who rejected the idea.

But, I should be fair. He does not shy away from criticism of Jefferson on issues of race and slavery. Indeed, he is rather cutting. For example, he notes that our third president wrote rather deceptively of Benjamin Banneker. He suggests without evidence that a white friend might have given him help in creating his almanac (specifically, in doing the mathematical calculations) and criticizes his writing style as being indicative of an average mind, whereas Gutzman found it to clearly be from a man of cultivated intellect and sensibilities.

The section which covers in the most detail Jefferson’s thoughts on race and slavery is, I found, one of the weaker sections. Gutzman’s heart is clearly in the first part, when he outlines the Virginian’s federalism. Yes, a little jarring that the party opposed to Jefferson’s politics was called the Federalist Party, but he is using federalism correctly, at least in current usage, which, is, of course, a strict view of the limitations on federal power, with the greatest balance of government authority in the hands of the states.

Some of the other sections lacked, I felt, partly because Gutzman’s ideas on Jefferson and federalism were relatively new to me and many other topics were not. Under a chapter on education though, there is a remark that Jefferson was a fan of Henry Home, Lord Kames. That particular Lord Kames was actually David Hume’s uncle (Hume changed the spelling of his name, because when he spelled it ‘Home,’ Englishmen kept mispronouncing it) and my interest was piqued not just because I have an interest in Hume, but because of a particular letter in which Jefferson roundly attacked him.

The Cave Dwellers


I am not familiar with DC old money or their habits, but I do know that smart senators do not move their families to the District anymore (rarely since Santorum and surely never since Robert’s easy chair in Kansas).

I also know that if Fox News invites a Senator to appear as a talking head, he can’t just send his press secretary in his place; the network will decline and find a Senator who will come in person.

And, let’s be honest, newly elected Republican Senator from North Carolina is not, in 2020 (the year this book was published), going to take the lead on expanding the Violence Against Women Act to include ‘psychological coercion.’

But it was a reminder of the so-called cave dwellers, nickname for the very rich, socialite families who are mostly not directly tied to politics, but too old money and who hobnob with cable tv personalities, establishment figures in the Cabinet, and a sprinkling of foreign diplomats and their families. It is no longer a case where much is decided in their drawing rooms, as in a Gore Vidal novel, but I am at least aware they still exist. The depiction of the adolescents, whose antics took up much of the novel, were rather depictions from an R rated Gossip Girl, mixed with an early Jay McInery novel. And the ending was a reminder how the invulnerable world of the one percent both has, but mostly has not changed.

‘Conservatism: An Invitation To The Great Tradition’ By Roger Scruton


The Scruton-a-thon continues, which is both more fun and less dirty than it sounds.

Not unfairly, Scruton lays claim to Thomas Jefferson as one of his own because Jefferson’s radicalism was also a claiming of traditional custom and continuity which he saw as being threatened by the crown. Not unfair, as I said, but I am not certain that I am buying this particular bill of goods. Many of his positions, ideologies, and aims were, conservative (which is, also to say, classically liberal), but being so integral to a revolution that so altered the world… I can respect his effort and can, partly agree, but mostly feel that, in this, he missed the forest for the trees.

For an Englishman, Burke, of course, is a looming figure. And it is no surprise that Scruton, best known for his philosophical work on aesthetic theory should also be drawn to a man who is both considered a sort of founding figure of (post)Enlightenment conservatism and who made his reputation with an early work of aesthetic theory. And, on a personal note, I haven’t read Burke’s Reflections and I really need to.

His philosophical chops are shown off in some nice explication of the notoriously tortuous Hegel, who gets nearly equal billing with Burke as a founding father of conservatism. In his Hegelian interlude, he returns to something I noticed in an earlier book, Roman household gods. He seems to see this as being a very important example of how custom and tradition, even in the absence of genuine belief, are vital (and conservative) glues for societal cohesion.

When I read Scruton, I think of a good friend of mine. We met in a very liberal college environment and he felt a certain need to rebel, which meant playing up the more conservative aspects of his character. I have always believed that what he really wants to be is a Republican, but he is held back by the fact that Republicans tend to be so terrible and their ideas genuinely stupid. This friend would desperately love Republicans to be more like Roger Scruton instead of what they are, a collection of dimly thought-out ideas and a pathological commitment to giving money to the very wealthiest people and taking that money from the very poorest, laced with some shouted, but never acted on verbiage about abortion.

I listened to his lectures before reading any of his books and his sonorous voice comes through here, lightened with asides like calling John Ruskin a Protestant Chateaubriand, ‘but manifestly without the Frenchman’s immense sexual prowess.’ If Ross Douthat could produce clauses like that, I might think him less of a douchebag producer of notably thin and precious gruel (did I ever tell you about the time he came my church and got up and left early with his whole family, just before a second collection; maybe he had an unrelated reason but staying an extra ninety seconds would both have made him seem less a cheap hypocrite and me less likely to taste vomit every time he gets on his pious, ultramonatist high horse).

The Paris Years Of Thomas Jefferson


Jefferson’s time in Paris was, clearly, incredibly powerful influence on all the years the followed, especially aesthetically (reminding me to sit down with Thomas Jefferson Among the Arts, a book I bought on my last trip to visit Monticello, at a wonderful look riverfront bookstore in Yorktown).

It is not a chronological history, but rather picks up several topics and explores them in the context of his Paris interlude. Topics include the arts, science and philosophy, and… women (in the last one, the author claims that the mighty Abigail Adams was a disciple of Edmund Burke, which I loved).

Early in the chapter discussing his actual work as a diplomat (which was mixed with a role as sort of trade representative for the fledging nation), his little book, Notes on Virginia, is described as being as ‘a kind of philosophical blueprint to guide him in devising a coherent foreign policy.’

While emphasizing that (even noting that, to his friends, he seemed almost foreign, when he returned), William Howard Adams also returns to Jefferson’s… standoffishness? He was, in his own way, an introvert. He enjoyed the company of small groups of intellectuals rather than the stylish salons that Benjamin Franklin famously enjoyed during his years in Paris (possibly helped by his love of the company of women, compared to rather more ‘naive, as the author says, Jefferson). He even used to retire to a monastery for a week at a time when work was pressing

I suppose that I am seeing elements of myself in him. Which is probably why, in my inflated self-regard, I keep returning to him. And perhaps why his failings hit me so powerfully. What do his powerful and important failings say about me?

Finally, Adams quoted at length from the great American political theorist, Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition:

…deep ambiguities in his thinking, which made any effort of consistency impossible. Ever since Jefferson’s death, scholars have been trying to discern order in – or impose it upon – his elusive, unsystematic thought, but without much success. It simply dos not lend itself to ordinary standards of consistency.

I Did Not Read Winston Groom’s ‘The Patriots’ Because I Quickly Decided It Was C–p


Didn’t take me long at all the reach the decision.

First, there was slight nagging in the back of one’s head: is this written at a seventh grade level? Because it doesn’t seem like it was written at the level of a reasonably educated adult.

Then, I was inspired to look up a note in the back and I came across the citations. A lot of biographies by more or less modern writers. Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, for example. This seems remarkably lazy and surely I’d be better off reading Chernow? I mean, I’m not. Well, I guess I could read Alexander Hamilton. I will definitely finish the musical, because it’s on Disney+ and I think my daughter should watch it because apparently everyone knows all the songs already. But I’m not reading this. This is clearly terrible.

For those of you (I’m speaking to my mother and to the other person who reads this blog who, interestingly enough, is neither my wife nor my sister, neither of whom read my blog) who are thinking, hey, this is the second week in a row that you haven’t technically read a book. Well, I’m going to blow your mind. I’m writing this on February 2, 2021. Mind… blown.

Philosophy: Principles And Problems


I did not read Philosophy: Principles and Problems, or rather, I did read it. It turns out, it is just a reprint of The Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy.

The main difference is that the conservative, more or less intellectually-minded imprint, Bloomsbury, changed the title. My guess is to make it sound less populist and more… I don’t know. High-minded.

Whatever. I got from the library in an orgy of Roger Scruton borrowing, so I guess, not much lost. Perhaps even a net benefit because I might have gained some small amount of muscle from carrying it home. Not much though. It’s an even smaller book in this edition.

‘The Enigma Of Clarence Thomas’ By Corey Robin


When I started reading this book, I didn’t realize that I’d already read a book by this author. And it arguably contains some of the same flaws, which is to say, a certain tendentiousness. Which is not to say uninteresting.

Robin makes an fascinating case for Clarence Thomas as being counterintuitively driven by a sense of black nationalism. I was frankly too lazy to read all the end notes and double check it all, so I’m taking the author’s word for it, at least insofar as the citations go. No reason to doubt, I should add.

Thomas, he argues (and this, to be honest, is not really debatable), was always a political creature and that was his route to the Supreme Court. He had never been a prominent nor respected jurist nor anything like a leading legal mind. In fact, he claims that Thomas literally hired two legal scholars to help him come up with a legal philosophy, because he was angling for seat on the Supreme Court and knew he needed one, or at least he needed to plausibly claim one.

Despite this political background, he believes that politics is ultimately incapable of solving anything for black Americans. His opposition to voting rights and support for gerrymandering is really, Robin argues, about weaning black people from the idea that there can ever be a political solution.

There are more arguments like that and… it’s frankly pretty nihilistic. Which, let’s face it, Thomas’ record is pretty nihilistic.

Something more than mid way through, perhaps around the 2/3 mark, there is a remark which struck me because it encapsulated something in head and which also, I believe, explains well the judicial philosophy of the late (great?) Antonin Scalia:

There is little doubt, however, that the originalist Constitution, the vision of the text as it was written and understood at a distant point in time, plays an outsized role in Thomas’s imagination. The originalist Constitution functions as an organizing myth, a holy fire Thomas is forever nearing, an idea more important for its “expressive function” – what is says to Thomas and what he means to say by invoking it – than for its regulatory role in his jurisprudence.

The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, pp 151-152

‘From Dawn To Decadence: 1500 To The Present: 500 Years Of Western Cultural Life’ By Jacques Barzun


I knew of Barzun as one of one of the New York intellectuals of the fifties and sixties, but only knew of him; I’d never read him.

But after reading an essay by someone who knew him (I can’t remember where I read; some right leaning publication, I believe, but one of those who mostly try to ignore Trump and assert some intellectual legitimacy to the right), I thought I should rectify that.

For better or worse, all the library had was his immensely long, late in life, magnum opus.

A couple of things struck me while reading it.

First, a fascinating aside about Hamlet within another aside about Shakespeare. He points out that it is a modern understanding to think of him a vacillating. In fact, Barzun argues, he was being judicious in a difficult environment. It is no small thing to kill a king and dangerous if you fail; also dangerous if you succeed, because you are vulnerable in the short term to popular unrest or the ambitions of nobleman who sees opportunity in the inevitable chaos. That he was not indecisive is proven, he writes, by Fortinbras saying, upon finding the scene of slaughter at the end (I am giving nothing away, I hope), that Hamlet would have made a great king. Surely, if Hamlet were the waffling type, this would not be the case. He also suggests that Laertes is included to point out the contrast between an impetuous character and a careful one; Laertes’ recklessness makes him an easy tool for Hamlet’s uncle. It also nicely matched an interesting (but not great) production of Hamlet that I saw at the Folger, where the director challenged the actors and audience not to focus on psychology, but on the actions of the characters.

Second, I am an elitist. I already knew this. But Barzun is writing elite, cultural history. He is not Braudel. He’s not even a Durant. He is an apostle of high culture. And, well, I like reading about that. That said, his brand patrician elitism can elide decency and slip into something distasteful, as in his off hand, Malthusian remark about “the rapid increase in people as hygiene and medication recklessly prolong life.” He was in his nineties when he wrote this book.

What did I learn? Well, it is the sort of magisterial, grand work one doesn’t find so much anymore, so one does learn a lot. Too much to sum up. But…

I’m not sure that counts as learning, but his thesis that monarchism is the key to unlocking an understanding of the baroque was fascinating, even if I am not qualified to judge it.

His portraits of cities as exemplars of particular times – Venice in the mid seventeenth century or London in 1715 – are as masterful as they delightful, until they are not. Paris in 1830 is oddly, mostly about German thought. His pastiche of 1895 showed an unsurprising indifference.

It feels like, and this especially struck reading his reading of the twentieth century, that the figures he most enjoys are more contemporary ones whose style harkens back to the witty and learned diaries, essays, and criticisms of Samuels Pepys and Johnson and the men who filled the pages of the Tatler and its siblings of the eighteenth century. But he does namecheck Garbage, one of the great bands of the nineties (the 1990s, that is), even if disparagingly (in the context of band names that are… bad? Dirty? Filthy?)

Should you read Barzun? Probably. He is Eurocentric and not terribly interested in non-white cultures, but these deep flaws don’t make him unreadable. Indeed, he is a witty writer. Lines like “a thin slice of antiquity for a large spread of modern butter,” in reference to French baroque culture’s preference for Roman over Greek antiquity struck me very nicely.

Rhythm Of War


I am officially tired of reading long, unfinished series of fantasy/science fiction novels, with each and every novel being longer than the last. I think this one clocked in at 1300 odd pages. Are you better than War and Peace? No? Then consider tightening your narrative.

Ok.

It wasn’t that bad, I was just ‘over’ this fourth book in the so-called Stormlight Archive about five hundred pages short of finishing it. Which, before you ask, I did finish it.

Sanderson does still write some great action sequences. He has characters (one in particular) who can fly (that’s technically not what he’s doing, but close enough without explaining an unnecessarily complicated magical system) and does a good job at depicting combat in multiple dimensions.

At least, if the author is try to his word, this particular storyline will end with the next book.

Free Food For Millionaires


It’s a long book, over six hundred pages, but it still annoyed me that some 150 pages in, I’m being told important traits about the protagonist. When the reader learns, over a quarter of the way in, that she’s oddly religious and even sees signs (not necessarily religious revelations, but still something quasi-gnostic), it feels like discovering something new than an author introducing a deus ex machina to move something along.

The protagonist, Casey Han, is often rereading Middlemarch and I suspect Lee sees it as a model for this book. But who is the village? The Korean-American community? The wealthy of Manhattan around whose edges Casey flits? It’s not clear. And despite being clearly soap opera-ish, Eliot never feels like a soap opera. This does. Must the Korean boyfriend have a gambling problem? Must the jerk husband have sex on the trading floor? Must the middle aged mother and the choir director have an affair? I never thought I’d say this, but I could use more social commentary and less sex.

Finally, if we accept that this is ultimately a soap opera, then the philosophical ending is unearned. She was aiming at a novel that deserved such an ending, but she ultimately didn’t achieve it. Despite some of the trappings, it was closer to Crazy Rich Asians than to George Eliot.