‘Theory’ (in the context of the humanities) and ‘critical theory’ (and especially ‘critical race theory’) find themselves frequently despised. Well, Anne Anlin Cheng’s Ornamentalism falls squarely into that camp.

Though short, if you do not like those categories, you won’t like, even if it won’t take you long to read.

I am always trying to be a ‘good’ white man and especially to be a good, white father to an non-white appearing daughter and I try to welcome challenges to my understandings (and, yes, prejudices).

The author struck me to the heart of the unseen biases within myself. I was most impacted by an off-handed line criticizing Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, a book that I adored, for failing to recognize how beauty can be terribly, damagingly racialized. It is so easy to see ‘my’ truth (a white, heterosexual, college-educated, middle class, man in America) as being everyone’s reality. Like Kant, I am constantly being awakened from my dogmatic slumber. It’s not always fun, but it is important.

Beyond that, it is about the Asian, female body. The body as clothed in exotic dresses, jewelry, headwear. The body stamped by prejudices (the assumption of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that unaccompanied Asian woman coming to America must be sex workers). The body as skin and flesh (naked, like sashimi; or, compared to porcelain). The body appropriated by white females.

The Reactionary Mind

Early in the book, in the second chapter, he quotes from the slightly unorthodox conservative, Andrew Sulivan, from his book, The Conservative Soul: Fundamentalism, Freedom, and the Future of the Right:

All conservatism begins with loss.

(Of course, I tend to think of Sullivan as rather a wannabe Hitchens, but lacking that better writer’s adventurous spirit and mordant wit. Of course they both did quit national magazines on account of feelings of ostracization stemming from more liberal colleagues disapproval of some of their positions.)

As a rhetorical tool, Corey Robin’s best move is to quickly go after Edmund Burke and place him squarely in the lineage of modern conservatism. ‘The priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power,’ he writes. Burke, by virtue of his commitment to keeping Westminster in narrow, elite hands, even as he believed in gifting a degree of economic security, falls under that rubric, the author argues. There is much more on Burke, early on, which makes me want to read more of Burke because I have an instinct to want to defend him (perhaps on account of my own elitism). But I cannot deny the efficiency of placing Burke in a lineage that leads directly to Trump, because otherwise, that esteemed eighteenth century thinker is the there to be pointed to, as an example of noble, intellectual conservative thought, implying that the current crudeness is an aberration. Robin seems to point at Burke’s thought and say, to quote Joseph Conrad, ‘And this also, has been one of the dark places of the earth.’

But to go back to that idea of loss… Buckley stands athwart history and shouts stop because something is being taken away from him. Race certainly being part of it, as desegregation and civil rights took a certain dominion from white men. While not his purpose, he gives a beautifully succinct explanation for why the Civil War could be about slavery (it was) even though most white men in the South did not own slaves. Under slavery, every white man was an aristocrat. With emancipation, man white men became merely poor and wanted their aristocratic privilege back.

Always though, he rows ceaselessly back to Burke. He take a trip earlier to visit Hobbes (the conservative as counterrevolutionary), but Burke is always there. He is what Thomas Jefferson is to me, I think: an admired figure who he knows is also dangerous and deeply unadmirable. To paraphrase a movie, he just can’t quit him.

He enjoys long, discursive, excerpt heavy footnotes… especially about Burke. I think he understands that Burke is figure at the beginning who no one (including, arguably, me) can accept as truly being part of the lineage of Trump. And he can’t let that (or him) go. Burke, you might say, is living rent-free in his head.

He’s now living in mine, too. I’ll have to find my copy of his selected writings and revisit. Especially his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity which sounds like a fascinating (and, yes, deeply conservative) defense of the rich and their capital against the needs of working people, disguised as an economic treatise.

The takedown of Rand (intertwined, somewhat inexplicably, with Nietzsche) was delicious. The author was incredulous as to how a writer of such ridiculous prose and philosopher of such shallow depths (who seems not to have read much philosophy) could be have become so… influential. In the end, I don’t think we know. I blame Paul Ryan.

Similarly, his critique of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s frankly rank hypocrisy (hint: he only adopted his textual originalism when it was useful to buttressing his decision, rather than always letting his originalism lead him to the decision) was nice to hear, because paeans to his supposedly principled legal stance have always rankled. Like so many leading 20th century (and now, 21st century) conservatives, his politics and philosophy were rooted in a culture of victimhood.

So, did this book, as a blurb attests, predict Trump? There is a chapter on Trump, clearly written post-election. But it feels understandably tacked on. Yes, he appealed to the sense of aggrievement, of victimhood, that is chronicled throughout as a key factor in conservatism. But Trump himself is so vacuous (he makes Ayn Rand look like Hannah Arendt) that the chapter is jarring. He’s a cipher, but in no way a thinker who added anything to the conservative movement beyond, perhaps, a little daylight (which has not proved to be as a good disinfectant as one might like).

Jefferson On Hume

Every one knows that judicious manner and charms of style have rendered Hume’s history [of England] the manual of every student. I remember well the enthusiasm with which I devoured it when young, and the length of time, the research and reflection which were necessary to eradicate the poison it had instilled in my mind… It is this book which has undermined the free principles of the English government, has persuaded readers of all classes that these were usurpations on the legitimate and salutary rights of the crown and have spread universal toryism over the land.

Letter to Colonel William Duane, August 12, 1810

A Parliamentary Wine

After reading this article, I decided that I had to try a Picpoul de Pinet, which luckily I found a pleasantly inexpensive one at the best little liquor store in Washington, DC (Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, if you must know). Crisp, with lots of minerality, it surprisingly satisfied both me and my better half, who have famously different tastes that make it almost impossible for us to share a bottle.

Reading Trump Into Camus

I have rejected looking to Camus’ The Plague for insight into… well, into this current plague.

But is just occurred to me, that there is an insight into Trump, or rather, into Trumpism, by which I am referring to the darker parts of the human soul. The fearful parts.

And the final lines of The Plague came to me:

He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.


Thomas Jefferson has often been accused of dissembling in his political life. Two letters, in particular, that I came across while reading my Modern Library edition of The Life and Selected Writings of Jefferson drove that home. Both, not coincidentally, written to John Adams, his great political rival in post-Articles America.

The first is Jefferson proclaiming a certain innocence in the controversy over his private correspondence praising Paine’s Rights of Man, praise which pointedly criticized the (comparatively) Anglophilicism of the Federalists and their political stances. While certainly true that he did not intend it to become public, much less published as a sort of introduction to the work, he writes as if nothing he said was not an implied attack on Adams.

Later, in the aftermath of what passed for presidential campaign in those days (the 1796 election), he protests too much to his (former, future) friend, writing:

In the retired canton where I am, I learn little of what is passing: pamphlets I never see: newspapers but few; and the fewer the happier.

Even the use of the pointedly pastoral term ‘canton’ (a word I can’t remember him using and a search using the tools of the National Archives reveals that, when used, it mostly used to refer to places in Europe, like the Swiss cantons or places or things actually named ‘Canton’) seems too… too much. After all, Jefferson did engage his supporters in a media war (using newspapers and pamphlets) on his behalf during the election. His failure to say  something as simple as, it was a hard fought election and while we have our strong political differences, I remain your friend and admirer. Instead, he says he wasn’t paying attention and later says that he always assumed that Adams would end up the victor. Finally, he says:

No one then will congratulate you with purer disinterestedness than myself…

Gore Vidal’s portrayal of the third President as a conflict adverse, sneaky political operator seems apt. Jefferson later wrote to his friend James Madison, complaining that he despaired of convincing Adams of the truth of his professed sentiments. I’m not sure I would have trusted them either.



For a final trip before school started up again, we visited Monticello, the vaunted home of Mr. Thomas Jefferson (we also visited Williamsburg; the colonial playground portion of the city a sad ghost town in this, the plague year, but I did enjoy the chance to see a monologue performed as the enslaved preacher and reformer, Gowan Pamphlet, who I recognized only because of Peter Adamson’s Africana Philosophy podcasts).
I wanted my daughter to see it and to, in time, have memories to call upon later when she tries to process what our country is.
Asked what she took away from investigating the inside of the house, she said that every room had stuff for writing. She also remembered that he had a device for copying what he wrote.
Posing before going to listen to a Jefferson impersonator speak. I made several notes about how the re-enactor subtly, but not too subtly, criticized President Trump. ‘Jefferson’ called out the British for sending armed troops into American cities. He criticized judges who answer to the king, instead of justice, He criticized the king for ignoring petitions. Finally, he said that the pursuit of science is in the Constitution as one of the duties of Congress and that he would always follow science, wherever it leads.
Books and letters. I can look at old writings for hours, though she is not there yet.
Posing with a young looking Jefferson.
Most likely, Thoughts on Political Economy is the treatise by Daniel Raymond, believed to be the first systematic treatise on economic written in America.
Because the struggle to balance disgust and admiration still exists for me when I contemplate Jefferson, this is important to include: the Monument for Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia, which he founded and whose original buildings he designed. I think what I am struggling with is my admiration for Jefferson as a figure of Enlightenment (though I have recently read a book that posit in one as a post-Enlightenment proto-Romantic and another as more like a Renaissance polymath than a true Enlightenment thinker), and I say figure, because the idea of the thinker, reader, writer on the mountain is so alluring, and my inability to forgive him.

img_5248The subtitle of this book was the title of an earlier book by Scruton and he describes this one as an attempt to wade back into the waters of demolishing the new new left (and also the same left as before, too).

His opening salvo acknowledges that Marx is not really, anymore, a lodestar for those on the left, but he still cannot help but engage with him, mostly because, like it or not, his philosophical writings are powerful and important.

But despite his protestations (doth the conservative protest too much?), he follows up his introductory chapter with a broadside (these are all, really, essays) on the Marxian historians Eric Hobsbawn (who I head read and love and to who Scruton gives appropriate credit for being a brilliant historian and man of letters) and E. P. Thompson (who I have heard of, but never read). Go figure.

Well, that’s not fair. Communism had far greater currency in England during the Cold War and had far more mainstream credibility than in America.

He even links Marxian ideas to John Kenneth Galbraith (though praising him as a stylist; the aestheticist in him is never far from the surface), which says more about the range of ideas Marx wrote about than it does about Galbraith (in case you’re interested, the linkage here is the Canadian economist’s  writings about want and desire in contemporary society being created by society’s output, which idea can, yes, be traced to Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, but I could do the same so some of Ross Douthat’s more explicitly religious critiques of society, so this isn’t really a left/right thing).

What did surprise me was his praise for Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: Birth of the Prison. He writes admiringly of its insights (while dismissing what links it to his other works, those he doesn’t like; these weak links, of course, are somehow related to Marx; but I appreciate being given a new, deliciously French vocabulary word: marxisant). His seemingly off-handed mention of how he died of AIDS reeks of the worst sort of nauseating, neanderthal moralizing (the subtext seems to be, ‘you know he was gay right?’ he shows similar attitudes when criticizing Sartre’s Saint Genet for mocking ‘norms of heterosexual respectability’).

As to why he, in particular, cannot let Marx go, even when he acknowledges Marxism is no longer very relevant to current debates, it is at the heart of his conservatism. Insofar as Scruton is a philosopher of import and a conservative, it is on the field of aesthetics that his foundation is laid. He is, arguably, a Burkean, but a Burkean of Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry Into The Origin Of Our Ideas Of The Sublime and Beautiful. Materialism and class analysis are anathema to him. Tradition, culture, and classic ideas of beauty inform Scutonian conservatism (I wanted to write Scroogean there, but that’s more a feature of the near homonymity than any deep connection between Scruton and Scrooge, whose own conservative was less about beauty and culture than class and materialism). Marx is a symbol for a turn from this aesthetic sense (he even blames the tortured syntax and unnecessary vocabularies that have become standard to many forms of academic writing across the ideological spectrum on Marx and Marxism, which would surprise anyone who has tried to read an academic article by an economist broadly from the Chicago, née Austrian, School.

I am disinclined to defend Zizek, though Scruton offers him some praise.

He writes perceptively of art, literature, cinema and music, and when he is considering the events of the day – be it presidential elections in America or Islamist extremism in the Middle East – he always has something interesting and challenging to say.

Well, paint me surprised. Later, he even seems to suggest that is Marxism is just fine (Lacan, apparently, is to blame for Zizek’s flaws) Also, I guess I hadn’t noticed before, but I don’t see an Oxford comma here.

The codicil chapter, which fits awkwardly, though if he had just stopped, that would have felt jarring, tries to give a positive statement on conservatism and is titled What Is Right? A certain political naivete rears its head here and makes clear that he’s not much of a political theater. His origin story is of watching the student demonstrations in Paris in 1968. He says that he didn’t know what he believed, but that they must be wrong. He loves order, in other words. But when he tries to go beyond that, well, he sounds rather liberal, to my ears.

I enjoyed the last (and only other) book that I read by Scruton that I read, but, just as I questioned his credentials as a political thinking, I am also not sure that he is really a philosopher at all (anyone who gives Hume some portion of credit for having ‘kept skepticism at bay’ deserves some mistrust). Actually, I am fairly certain that he is not. Which is not to say that he is not well, indeed, deeply read in the subject. But it is to say that he is more like a Christopher Hitchens figure. A powerfully intelligent polemicist rather than a systematic thinker. He’s also like Hitchens in that it can be marvelously fun to read his mockery (Habermas is subjected to the best lines. His books ‘are printed in luxury editions for the better class of living room. Few people have read these books from cover to cover; few of that who have read them remember what they say.’ Also, ‘with somewhat greater frequency than the lines of Shakespeare that fall from the monkey’s typewriter, interesting ideas surface in the great waste-paper basket of Habermas’ prose’) and that it’s a worthwhile waste of one’s time to watch extended clips of him online (at least thirty minutes, but preferably longer).

But, he’s made me want to take another stab at reading Being and Nothingness (presumably not his intention) and to find and reread a Raymond Williams book that bought years ago at Kramerbooks (I know I’ve seen it recently on the shelves in my study; it has a striking, if not particularly handsome, silver cover), offered an offhanded but fascinating defense of Augustine’s theory of original sin, and maybe convinced me to read more Scruton.

Scruton fulfills or can fulfill, in a way, something like the role that William F. Buckley played for the intellectual left. That is the role of the conservative that one can engage with. The each bring a pleasant, upper class accent and vocabulary, though Scruton, so far as I know, lacks Buckley’s unreconstructed racism and segregationism (though his attack on Edward Said and his defense of Said’s targets smacks of a certain pro-colonialism). Certainly, I hope so. One can imagine him despising Trump’s rigidly unintelligible propaganda, proudly uninformed opinions, and, not least, his outspoken and unironic tackiness (one can easily imagine Buckley being outwardly seduced by Trump, but that is because Buckley’s interest was movement through the exercise in political power, whereas Scruton appears driven by his love of aristocratic English high culture).

Review: ‘Twilight At Monticello: The Final Years Of Thomas Jefferson’

img_5245My interest in Jefferson has always been in the workings of his mind and I am not sure this book did much to expand my understanding, in that regard.

Also, this is the second book I have read about Thomas Jefferson in the last several weeks that seems to give weight to arguments that doubt his fathering Sally Hemmings’ children. This is does so better, by describing the arguments against it, as if in good faith, but ultimately coming down on the side of, yes, Jefferson and Hemmings had a sexual relationship and he fathered several children with her. Frankly, right now, the issue (no pun intended) is so little in doubt that any effort to seriously recognize the other side is deeply fraught, because it is clear that racially motivated prejudices drive them (Jefferson, a proud and noble white man with unimpeachable intellectual and ethical credentials, could not have had a sexual relationship, which could never be truly consensual, with a black woman, however light skinned).

It is also a depressing book. The chronicle of a family’s decline into insolvency. Page after page of Jefferson’s extravagant spending, combined with loan upon loan (including sad sounding loans, like $100 from a local shopkeeper) and the occasional bad faith financial transaction (while acting with essentially power of attorney for a European friend’s property, he sold it and then loaned the proceeds to himself). Even his offer to sell his library to replenish the Library of Congress, which the British had burnt to ashes during the War of 1812, was driven in no insignificant part in order to get a hold on some cash to pay off some loans and show sufficient solvency so as to be able to ask for more credit. And did I mention that Crawford hints that, in his later years, Jefferson might have had an opium addiction? Yeah, it’s not a fun read, in many respects.

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.