Review: ‘Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics Of Enlightenment And The American Founding‘ By Darren Staloff


My critique would be this: we must take him at his word. He devotes some two score pages to a description of the Enlightenment (primarily the French Enlightenment; in the sections about the individual Founders, the Scottish Enlightenment gets many nods, but not so much here, though the distinctly non-French Kant does get a few mentions). In the 80-100 pages each of the figures gets, he describes their take on (and sometimes rejection of) various strands of Enlightenment.

But he does not much quote from them. Yes, he has extensive citations, but not owning all those primary sources (and also having a job and a family which takes up some of my time), I must accept his interpretations and assessments at face value. And, as I mentioned, I’m not one hundred percent on his vision of the Enlightenment (which sometimes bleeds into early Romanticism).

But on those assertions.

Adams, he claims, saw class conflict, as vital. It was the tension which preserves the Republic. If the aristocratic elite become too dominant, you have baronial oligarchy. If the masses win, some charismatic general, a la Napoleon, takes power. Interesting and also begging for some contemporary commentary (where he have a populist who simultaneously works to put the economic oligarchs in power).

One nearly unforgivable statement is that he writes it is ‘probable but not certain’ that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemming’s children, which is true (though by 2005, when this book was published, it would have already been more to say it is ‘nearly certain and widely accepted’), but what makes it so frustrating for me and what makes me question him, is that he goes on to cite the theory that it could have been his younger brother. That is a canard that had been used by unscrupulous historians and pseudo-historians for years to try and deny the heritage of his descendants by Hemmings. What makes this so much more frustrating is that Staloff is unstinting in pointing out the racism that undergirded too much of Jefferson’s public life, including how his own actions to drive American Indians (oh, and why does he insist in writing ‘Amerindian?’) from their land lay the foundation for Andrew Jackson’s later, genocidal actions.

In general, it was about Adams that I learned the most (though my trust in what he writes was deeply shaken by what he wrote about Hemmings in the final section, about Jefferson). It’s been many, many, many years since I that McCullough biography and the section on Adams spoke a lot more aspects of his presidency that had (to my mind) little to do with whatever point he was trying to make about the Enlightenment, but I didn’t know about his critical support for Haiti’s revolution, opening up relations with the revolutionary government and allowing American ships to bring needed supplies. Again, though, not clear how this relates to Adams supposedly somewhat skeptical view of Enlightenment ideas.

In fact, he doesn’t do a great job on how their actual political lives were or were not guided by their own takes on the Enlightenment. When he writes about the Enlightenment, he mentions the Physiocrats who can be directly linked to Jefferson’s agrarianism, but then he posits Jefferson as being a post-Enlightenment Romantic. And if the Physiocrats are an emblematic facet of Enlightenment, how does Hamilton’s singleminded focus on commerce and finance fit in? He does place the Enlightenment in a uniquely urban context, which fits well with Hamilton (and Adams, though he doesn’t make that point).

This is an interesting book, but frankly, the arguments are little muddled.

Notes On Virginia


You can see Jefferson’s regular topics and conceits clearly here. A chapter on religion is mainly about the religious freedom he so assiduously (and successfully; he wrote the statute) championed in Virginia. On education, it reflect the inadequacy of both the physical and curricular structure of William & Mary, then the state’s only college; arguments no doubt in support of his quest to establish the University of Virginia at the base of his mountain. You see Jefferson the amateur scientist (and a fascinating digression into some amateur archaeology that he undertook on a Native American burial mound.

On manufacturing, his disdain for large scale production is clear (despite the fact that very nearly his only profitable venture was a nail factory he built on his lands). It feels a little naive, to disdain creating finished goods here, beyond basic items, but it fits with his pastoral/agricultural republicanism. Like Socrates, he seems to think smaller polities are better.

On race… the less said the better. He was at a point where his views were evolving and not for the better. He is open to the idea that the native peoples could achieve a cultural status close to whites, but that “generosity” only reminds the modern reader of the anti-black racism running through his brain.

Takeaway quote (from the religion section):

It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.

And you know what? In this day, his vigorous, anthropological critique of religious oppression may seem commonsensical today, in the eighteenth century it was far more daring and outre.

Doesn’t make up for the racism, though.

Maria Edgeworth, William Wordsworth & David Ricardo


I read this little piece on William Wordsworth’s visit to Ireland and the extent to which he was influenced by what he saw there (both in terms of the political and ecological content of his poems). It also noted his encounter with Maria Edgeworth, the author of Castle Rackrent.

Later, I was re-reading my favorite bit of a beloved book, The Worldly Philosophers. My favorite bit of that book (after the description of Thorstein Veblen washing dishes with a garden hose) is the section on Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In that section, it notes the correspondence (and influence) one Maria Edgeworth had on Ricardo.

When I saw the Edgeworth name on page 85, I wondered, could that be the same one? Flipping over the page, when I saw Castle Rackrent mentioned, I obviously knew it was.

That’s it. Just a fun little thing. But you should definitely read The Worldly Philosophers. I actually had it in my bag because I have been intending, for some time, to loan it to a friend who going to be studying business. My father once semi-famously said that one should never confuse a business degree with an education. I thought that a book about influential economists might split the difference a little bit. So I had it in my bag, in case I should run into him.

Another Bookstore Gone…


cq5dam.resized.270x180!While DC has been good about adding bookstores (like my neighborhood’s recent addition, East City Books), we do seem to be taking two steps back for every step forward (we lost Books for America and the downtown Barnes & Noble over the last year).

This time, it’s the only in DC World Bank Group InfoShop Bookstore.

That’s right. If you didn’t live in DC, you would never know such a thing existed. But it did. And it was super awesome.

In addition to World Bank publications, it had a fantastic array of very specialized books on economics and global development. I bought my copy of Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land from that particular bookshop.

And just… what a cool thing to have in your hometown?

Ugh. Another one bits the dust.

‘The Left In Dark Times’ By Bernard-Henri Lévy


9780812974720I bought The Left in Dark Times because I wanted to read something by Bernard-Henri Lévy and I thought that this book, rather than his reportage/current events style books, would be a good introduction to his actual thinking. While sometimes called a philosopher, I’m not really sure it applies, but I wanted something vaguely rigorous by him (which, as it turns, this isn’t, exactly).

You may know Bernard-Henri Lévy (sometimes known as BHL; he’s that famous in France) as that rick looking French guy on TV with the leonine mane of grey/white hair, dark suit, a white shirt that is always unbuttoned two buttons below what is appropriate to the situation, yet always staying above the critical belly button line.

The Left in Dark Times feels terribly dated. It is something from a time that feels very long ago; before the ‘Great Recession,’ before the more recent global economic contractions (Greece, China, etc). Before we were expelled from an economic eden where risky trade and capital entrepreneurship would lift all boats, if we just let it. In this book, economics aren’t a ‘thing’ at all.

The left is in dark times because, he writes, economic democratic-socialism has been, somehow, disproven, by the good times of the early and mid noughties. For him, the true Left (capital L) is in international humanitarian interventionism. Which is not, in itself, bad, but now, things feel so tied to the economy as causing so many humanitarian problems through indirect means. He scoffs at the idea of a malignant economic imperialism and colonialism, but these days, their ill effects feel all too true.

Let’s just say it: his Left feels more like neo-liberalism. The vapours hanging over his exhortations are pre-lapsarian, before Tony Blair and New Labor fell from grace. We can no long say, can we, that humanitarian crises are unrelated to the failures of unregulated, neo-liberal, rentier capitalism.

He writes a lot about the anti-semitism and the ‘Palestinian question.’ I agree with him on a two state solution, but I don’t agree with his positioning on things like BDS and attitudes towards Israel, but as a Jew (BHL, not me), I give him some leeway here, especially since I am not so blind as to understand that anti-semitism is a much more pervasive problem in France and in Europe, in general, than it is in America (or is worse in America than I know? with Trump’s appropriation of anti-semitic imagery, is it an underappreciated issue here, too?).

He ends (not really; there’s a meandering and surprisingly long epilogue) with a passionate defense of the Universal, by which he means universal human values. He does defend Europe, but is careful not to mean merely an extension of an idea of western values to the world. His Universals are, though, the justification for interventionism. Reading just made me sad, coming on the heels of the Brexit and dissolution of trust between northern and southern Europe (really, between southern Europe and Germany). He becomes oddly religious. Or almost religious. He defends (sort of, and then backs away) Jewish concepts of prophecy and the prophetic tradition as linked to the Universal. I like one phrase, near the end: “The Universal works more by influence than incorporation.” I can get behind such a Universal. It feels kindred to King’s moral arc.

Ultimately, he is a Hitchens like figure. Tied to a time and a place and an ideology that makes him more than normally timely and less than normally timeless. And, while it might be the translation, he lacks Hitchens’ genius for scintillating polemics that make him, still, a worthwhile read for students of essayistic style.

American Marxist


The paragraph is from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, The American Scholar. While reading it before bed the other night, I wondered whether or not it was just or whether he really seemed to be describing the Marxian concept of people’s alienation from the fruit of their labors? Of course, his solution is more spiritual, combined with what might now be described as college town, farmer’s market, DIY liberalism (and Marx never really wrote out the solutions, did he? No, not really).

Christians In America Are Not Being Persecuted; Or, The Only Christians Being Persecuted By Wal-Mart Using ‘Happy Holidays’ Signs Are Exploited Wal-Mart Employees Who Happen To Be Christian


I am a Christian and we are so ridiculously far from being persecuted in this country, that it’s… ridiculous.

The major holy days of my religion are national, federally recognized holidays. Spring break is entirely designed to make sure people have time off during Easter!

Yom Kippur and Songkram are not holidays. Americans do not suddenly feel compelled to say “happy holidays” to each other during Ramadan, nor are we deluged with signs and holiday sales during it.

And about that whole “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays” b——t… the entirety of non-Christian America is basically forced to recognize Christmas for an entire month, at least, so “Happy Holidays” does not represent an attack on the Christian faith, but rather a recognition that maybe we could make the state sponsorship of a Christian holiday maybe, slightly, but not really less exclusive of non-Christians. And, frankly, if the Wal-Mart stops using the name of a holiday celebrating the birth of my faith’s messiah to promote the sale of lawnmowers and to celebrate an exploitative system, well that’s okay with me.

The entirety of supposed ‘persecution’ of Christians in America is a response to a half-hearted effort to make our culture less overwhelmingly biased towards one religion.

The Sunday Paper – Shuffling The Tarot Deck


Economic model or astrological tool?
Economic model or astrological tool?

Economists use ‘mathiness’ to disguise their astrologies.

Old fashioned literary hate mail is the best literary hate mail. Today’s internet trolls just can’t compare to the greats of the genre.

We just don’t make good polymaths anymore.

‘Thunderbird’ By Dorothea Lasky


I feel vaguely guilty about this book, because I got it for free from Wave Books, because they were late getting some books I’d ordered sent out (Wave Books is a great publisher of contemporary poetry and I feel guilty about inconveniencing them and cutting into their margins; on the other hand… free poetry!).

This was my first time reading Lasky’s poetry and, at first, I found it a struggle. Not difficult, just not my kind of thing.

But I persevered and was pleasantly rewarded by a series of political and feminist explorations. Basically, I didn’t like the first two poems in the book, but thought everything else was pretty super awesome.

From ‘I Want to Be Dead’

I want to be dead
After all the ultimate act of self-indulgence is to be dead
Histrionic bareback

I will make one tiny objection, though. The fonts are terrible. Or rather, the titles of each poems are in a terrible, bold, gothic-y font that strains the eyes and take me out of the poem whenever my attention wanders to the top of the page.

Fiscal Conservative, Social Liberal


Whenever I hear that phrase, I cringe, because it’s a favorite phrase of upper middle class, white liberals who have fallen for both a false idea of fiscal conservatism and a shallow conception of social liberalism.

The social liberalism is generally a vague mixture of support of abortion rights, environmental protection, and LGBTQ rights. The fiscal conservatism is usually some vague platitudes about living within our means, not wanting to pay taxes, and perhaps some Pete Peterson-esque BS about cutting Social Security or Medicare and/or the ‘fixing’ the federal debt.

Here is an example my objections, which show why this stance is almost always BS.

For example, on LGBTQ issues, the support is frequently around marriage equality (though it is less vital since the Supreme Court made it the law of land). All well and good, of course, but an issue that costs far more precious blood and treasure is the issue of the still high rates of homelessness, drug addiction, abuse, and suicide among LGBTQ youth. They don’t brunch and their issues cannot be solved with a court ruling. In fact, what they need is to loosen that belt and invest in social services and programs that cost, you know, money.

The fiscal conservatism is almost always a false economy. Cutting social services and depriving America of the talents and future contributions of those young people is a long term cost. In the medium term, the higher rates of STIs and the connection between drug addiction and crime have considerable costs in blood and treasure.

The thing is, we, as a country, always wind up paying for these things. Just as when conservatives pissed and moaned and cried about healthcare reform. We can’t afford it, they said. It will be too expensive, they said. Mindbogglingly ignorant. Can’t afford it? We are already paying for it. Literally. Money is fungible. America pays X amount per year for healthcare. We already pay for healthcare, as a nation. We are just doing it ineffectively. In fact, we even pay more than that X would suggest, because we are also paying in reduced wages.

That goes for most of this stuff. In fact, it’s very much like your mother told you when you were a kid: take care of it now, or else it will be worse later. Take your medicine and pay upfront for social services for those kids, or else pay later and pay more. Set up a rational healthcare system that controls costs or else don’t and pay more later, one way or another.

Fiscal conservatism is actually about not wanting to pay now. Not wanting to pay now, also benefiting from the fact that, in America, poor people will pay a higher relative share of those future costs than you.

Other phrases I hate include, ‘I vote the person, not the party’ and ‘I’m just telling it like it is.’

In the first phrase, nine times out of ten, that’s just to provide an independent veneer, because the person who said that invariably votes for the candidate of a single party (usually Republican, because most Democrats aren’t so ashamed of their affiliation) in 99% of elections.

In the second case, the phrase almost always follows a statement which was some combination of pointlessly hurtful and/or racist.