‘Thomas Jefferson: The Art Of Power’ By Jon Meacham

Did I need to read another Jefferson book? Probably not. My fifth in the last two years, though the first traditional biography (the others being guided by conceits or else by Christopher Hitchens and so read to understand him rather than Jefferson).

No. What I need to do and what I have started to do is read Jefferson’s own writings.

It’s a good biography, don’t mistake me, but my interest is in his thinking and as the founder or spiritual godfather of a certain Americans intellectual tradition, not in his use of power. Though, it should be noted that I am not sure that this book actually does all that much to explain Jefferson’s view of the art of power. I think it was settled upon more because it was a cool title than a genuine descriptor of the book’s unique contribution. But an important though not unique note: …we see that Jefferson the practical politician was a more powerful persona than Jefferson the moral theorist. [478]

In terms of things I gained from the reading, I did appreciate hearing Meacham’s perspective, such as his defense of Jefferson’s behavior as governor of Virginia for a few years during the Revolution.

PS – Happy Father’s Day, everyone.

Bret Easton Ellis In The LRB

Just going to briefly make a pitch in favor of reading James Walcott’s article on Bret Easton Ellis in the May 23 edition of the London Review of Books. Technically, it is a review of his latest book, White, but a nice and balanced and clear eyed appraisal of his career, recognition of the value and failure of books like American Psycho, and taking a nuanced look at his late career shift as a middle aged, conservative, would-be provocateur. It even made me less angered by his wrongheaded and shallow retorts to younger generations.

The Fifth Risk

I’m done. I’m done reading the nonfiction of the Trump area. I never used to read ‘current events’ because the facts become dated so quickly and the analysis appears facile mere months later. I should return to that stance having read two Trump books this year.

The Fifth Risk is a book of brief biographies of immensely intelligent, talented, and important people rendered useless by a series of incompetent and malicious appointees without the least desire of what government agencies do (Do you know that the main responsibility of the Department of Energy is making sure that nuclear materials and technology don’t fall into the wrong hands? Because no one in the Trump administration did and probably no one still does.).

In terms of Trump appointees, like Gary Cohn and Rob Porter in Woodward’s Fear, anyone who is not actively trying to destroy the Republic through Sith Lord levels of malice or Star Wars prequels levels of raw stupidity becomes a de facto hero and while I believe it, I… I… I just can’t. I can’t.

I’m reading Gore Vidal and another biography of Thomas Jefferson now because I refuse to spend any more time, for the time being, amongst such stupid, stupid people.

Williamsburg & Yorktown

A lovely bookstore on the Yorktown riverfront. I bought a copy of Jefferson’s selected writings.

From the Yorktown Battlefield visitor’s center; according to tradition, the campaign table of General Lord Cornwallis.

The Yorktown Victory Monument

The rather martial foyer of the Governor’s Palace

I just enjoyed seeing a book edited by the notable leftist historians, Eric Foner, in a government building in the Age of Trump (not that Foner does not deserve his place; his multivolume history of Reconstruction is still the gold standard).

My continued dialogue with the idea of Jefferson

The Charlton Coffeehouse is my favorite stop in Colonial Williamsburg. When I asked about this (initially thinking that Mr. Mercer might have been engaging in some civil disobedience), the “player” turned out to be quite knowledgeable and told me about how Mercer was accosted and assaulted by an angry mob and then submitted this the next day; she also told me about another, similar incident involving a tax collector in Pennsylvania.

The coffeehouse

Outside the Governor’s Palace

Inside the Governor’s Palace

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.

Hitchens On Paine

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.

‘Identity: The Demand For Dignity And The Politics Of Resentment’ By Francis Fukuyama

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.

‘Fear’ By Bob Woodward

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.