We visited Colonial Williamsburg and made a brief stop in Yorktown to visit the Yorktown Battlefield and to, ahem, check out a bookstore. I have continued to read (and feel conflicted) about Thomas Jefferson and was disappointed that the Raleigh Tavern wasn’t open, because it featured prominently in Jefferson’s life while studying in Williamsburg, including being where the Virginia House of Burgesses met after being officially dissolved by the Royal Governor.
I felt a little bad reading this because I have a nice, inexpensive copy of The Rights of Man which I have never finished and here I am putting the cart before the horse and reading about it before actually reading it. I suppose that makes me like most readers of this book but, to be honest, I have always thought I was better than most people, at least as regards my reading habits, if not morally and hygenically.
We read Hitchens, of course, for Hitchens, regardless of the ostensible focus, but we can see the appeal: a polemicist and pamphleteer in the Enlightenment tradition who made a widely recognized contribution to the course of human events. In dedicating the book to the then president of a post-Saddam Iraq, he must have been hoping, somewhere, that one day he might be recognized in some small way as contributing to a similarly successful product, even if the years appear to have only proven him more wrong on that particular adventure than it seemed even when he wrote this.
I had never heard it before and won’t vouch for its provenance, except to express my belief that Hitchens would have made a good faith effort to examine its sources, but I love the anecdote about William Blake, the mystical poet, warning Paine, the (small ‘r’) republican pamphleteer, that he was in danger of arrest, inspiring the latter to immediately cross the water to revolutionary France.
Learning about Paine’s career was the fascinating. My own knowledge, prior, was rather thin. While no substitute for a biography by a professional biographer or historian, I am not likely to read one, so I’m glad that I got this brief look at his career.
I have grown to have some respect for Fukuyama over the years. While I never read the book upon which his popular reputation was built, I did read the essay it was built on and his ‘End of History’ thesis is better than its caricature and well worth reading.
And he seems to be properly appalled by how he has found himself lumped in with the neoliberal movement, particular the xenophobic, alt-right academia wing personified by Samuel Huntington (though he also inserts a somewhat jarring and brief defend of Huntington towards the end, where he also manages to y’all about the ‘Protestant work ethic’ without ever mentioning Weber, which strikes me as almost impressively sloppy).
The thesis, which puts the Greek concept of thymos front and center – the need for recognition – and its two iterations, one focused on the personal desire to be treated with equal dignity as others and the other on the personal desire to be treated with greater respect than others. He also has some fascinating ideas about Martin Luther’s theory of grace leading to what become identity politics.
But he undermines every good point he makes with some too timely concern trolling of the contemporary left. He begins by writing a fascinating book with a potentially long shelf life, but then turns a glitter gun on it, only it’s not glitter, it’s the aforementioned concern trolling (which, one suspects, will seem passé if not meaningless in a few years, in its specifics) and short chapters for the short of attention span.
I almost never read this kind of book, the sort generally classified as ‘current events.’ I read the newspaper and follow the news pretty carefully, so I have never felt reading six month old news to be very interesting.
But these feel like… different times, don’t they.
Fear reads very weirdly. Woodward is necessarily very diligent in his use of quoted and language, which means you have a conversation where half of someone’s sentence is in quotes (meaning that he feels 100% confident of the exactitude) and the other half is not.
The book roughly covers Bannon taking over the campaign through Down quitting the president’s legal team. Trump is not actually portrayed very much at all, but the portrait emerges through the chaos around him.
But it feels weird. Rob Porter of wife beating accusation fame comes across as the almost hero of the book. When he quits over (multiple) accusation of physical abuse, it gets short shrift, possibly because Woodward wasn’t covering that story. And the people who he goes gently on – was it because he decided that Porter, Lindsey Graham, and Rex Tillerson truly were comparative heroes or because they were his best sources and he doesn’t want to burn them?
I don’t know and it taints the reading.
To read Gore Vidal’s essays published in The Nation is, for the most part, to read those of his writings least likely to have stood the test of time. His politically minded writings of the last twenty years of his life do not, to my mind, read as particularly prescient; instead, they feel as naive without necessarily being idealistic. Some are not even very enjoyable to read for his inimitable style.
But, there are always nuggets on insight and joy.
I had forgotten that Jerry Brown – who should have a monument erected in his honor for his last two terms as governor of California – ran for president in 1992. Rather than spend his time writing about the then almost certain nominations of George Bush, père, and Bill Clinton, he sees something vital in Jerry Brown and Pat Buchanan.
I wrote that most of the essays do not feel prescient, but this one felt positively eerie in its foreknowledge.
His interpretation of how Brown and Buchanan represented the true and beating hearts of the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, seem to almost exactly match the current transformations of them today. He couldn’t have known it, but Vidal’s Pat Buchanan is a proto-Trump: racist, isolationist and intent on dismantling what Gore called the ‘American Empire’ on those terms.
Brown is similarly depicted as ‘post-imperial,’ but on the grounds that we must focus on humanity and the people writ large.
I was forewarned regarding Vidal’s dislike of Hamilton, but was surprised by his frequent dismissal of Jefferson (though I loved his depiction of the third president in Burr) and his seeming affection for and interest in John Adams (though the McCullough biography was still within a couple of years of peak popularity, so maybe he felt compelled).
No one in their right mind reads a history by Vidal in order to know history. Understand more, perhaps, but not to know it, if that distinction makes any sense to you. And I know enough, I feel, to know what to distrust and what might offer some new understanding.
But I have always found Vidal’s obsession with American politics vaguely surprising. It makes perfect sense and he was, really, a frustrated politician, in many ways, in addition to the family history. But his public intellectual style and Brahminic accent, not to mention his long time home in Italy, he always felt like someone who should have spent the life of his mind with Cicero rather than Washington.
Our little girl is adopted. More than that, she was adopted recently and was not a baby, so she comes to America with little understanding of her new home’s culture and history.
Living in Washington, DC, there are so many reminders of how problematic that history can be.
We visited Mount Vernon, the home of our first president, George Washington. Having been on a bit of a Jefferson kick lately, my recent reading has focused on the Revolutionary War and early days of the United States – all of which has served to reinforce how vital he was to our founding. No, he was not a particularly good general, but his gravitas and dedication to some of the best ideals of our founding made this country possible. And then we talked by the slave quarters. How do you talk about these aspects of the man to a young child who knows little English and even less about our national origins? If she were younger, we might ignore it or gloss over it, but she is old enough, that you cannot.
More recently, her mother showed her the 14,000 shoes made into a temporary monument to the child shot since Sandy Hook.
There are so many things like this, that need talking about, but which are hard to talk about. I want her to know this a great country, founded on groundbreaking ideas emerging from the fermentations of the Enlightenment. But I can’t ignore slavery, Jim Crow, school shootings, nor the genocidal treatment and effect of Europeans on Native Americans.
And Lord knows, I have fallen down on these conversations, because they are so hard. They are hard in practical terms, because of the language barrier, but also in finding ways to talk about them with a young, but not so young, child.
So I end with no solutions, but feeling overwhelmed by all that we have to teach her about and the need to be honest, but not despairing.