Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Father of American Contradiction

 

All things considered, Thomas Jefferson doesn’t have to endure that many punches today. He’s a United States of America “Founding Father” alternately claimed by the "liberal" Democratic Party and by Southern anti-government(/anti-federalist) “individualists” on the Right. Modern sentiment regarding his sexual relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, seems to range, oddly, only between general forgiveness and acceptance-- even admiration-- for his supposedly “forward” thinking on miscegenation.

His biographer, Joseph J. Ellis, the author of American Sphinx, wrote that any attempt to lift Jefferson out of the context of his time and move him to the present “is like trying to plant cut flowers.” Ellis argues that historians have preferred, through the years, to make the mistake of protecting the purity of the past than commit “the sin of presentism”—that is, holding the third President of the Republic to the scrutiny of modern standards.

What we rarely hear about, at least in establishment circles, is the reality that Thomas Jefferson was a white supremacist. It’s a well-known fact that he was a slave owner, but we often hear that admission coupled with a defense that the man’s writings condemned the institution even before the ink was dry on the Declaration of Independence and that his memoirs contend he went to his death in 1826 with the full knowledge that slavery was the unresolved-- and unsolvable-- issue for the nation he helped establish.

Jefferson’s worries on slavery, though, seem to have been more tightly wrapped in how the end of that institution might impact the well-being of the white race. As President, he believed that the slave uprising in Haiti that established the first black-majority government in the Western Hemisphere at the beginning of the 19th century should be condemned because of the violent example the rebellion could prove to be to slaves residing in the much larger country to Haiti’s north. He was unable to resolve the slavery issue in his mind not because of its moral implications so much as that he couldn’t solve the paradox of how Africans and their descendants could be freed upon the continent without that emancipation leading to violent reprisals against former slavemasters. To say that Jefferson was anti-slavery in thought obviously is betrayed by the fact that he owned slaves to his dying day, but the contention also fails to acknowledge that, regardless of his views on slavery, he was still clearly opposed to racial integration.

Historians tell us that, as a retired statesman living in his mansion on a hill in Virginia, he was troubled by “the Missouri Question,” perhaps the key political challenge to the nation during the 1820’s. The western part of the United States that Jefferson had annexed with the Louisiana Purchase was filling with people and the fight over slavery was being touched off with violence in that region. Ridiculously, Jefferson argued at that time that allowing slavery to expand in the West would “dilute” the institution, a reading which, to me, is nothing more than that of an old man-- deep in debt as he was personally at the time-- abandoning his legendary idealism for a little political and financial expedience.

When Jefferson’s 100-plus slaves were sold at auction upon his death, Sally Hemings was among them. This revisionist idea that theirs may have been some sort of epic love story is betrayed by the fact that he never wrote about her once in any of his vast and accumulated writings, and that she was not granted her freedom at his death when others at Monticello were given theirs. The theory that her sexual consent in the relationship is somehow implied by the “troubled” thoughts Jefferson had about slavery in his memoirs is beyond absurd, akin to arguing that Jerry Sandusky should be excused because he was “troubled” by the idea of young boys growing up in fatherless homes. They are both predators. Sally’s consent is an empty concept in and of itself in the light that she was his property. It’s conceivable that she gave her consent, but the only thing we’ll ever know for certain is that he didn’t need it.

Jefferson can be judged harshly even against the standards of his time. In Paris, where Jefferson lived extensively between the War for Independence and his inauguration as President in 1801, slavery was already perceived widely as the original sin of the new republic across the ocean. In the academic circles of the Northern states, it was hated with much vehemence. Among the signers of the Declaration of Independence, they may have been almost to a man white supremacists, but some were virulently opposed to slavery, and Jefferson was not perceived as being especially progressive on the issue by either the Northern contingent of convention delegates or the Southern. On matters of race, he was already a relic as a young republican revolutionary.

The author of the establishing declaration that “all men are created equal” had a very distinctive idea of who was a “man” and exactly who wasn’t. He was not including women in his intent, of course. He felt they were out of place in the company of decision-making men. He admirably opposed the popular idea that only land-owners should have voting rights, but as we’ve established, he never would have felt that slaves descended from Africa should be included as equal partners with Anglo-Saxons in the governance of the republic. He believed that these individuals were forever incapable of being equals even if slavery could be logistically repealed.

His cornerstone idea of a minimalist government was finally murdered more than a century later by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who stepped in during the 1930s to correct the disaster that had been wrought by the Jeffersonian ideal. So smitten was he, in fact, with the idea of no government at all except for the contradictory notion of "self-governance," he even opposed Judicial Review, a concept that was established with Marbury v. Madison during the Jefferson presidency, and is today probably the most inscrutable element of the separation of powers construct.

Jeffersonian America, with its unlimited freedom for the individual white man and its faith in a government acting least acting best, had evolved into full-scale myth decades before FDR came along. By the late 19th century, the West was closing for further expansion and the Industrial Age was unmasking and worsening economic inequality. We still cling to the founding myths, but it’s Jefferson’s anti-government rhetoric that’s actually been the most enduring legacy through the generations. It's the one that lingers with us most acutely, the one we pay for with little bits of our soul every time we watch a political candidate claim to despise the federal government he or she is campaigning to lead.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Musical pleasings

 
What’s your favorite musical sound? See, I’m not a big guitar guy. Acoustic? Boring and lacking expression. Electric? Forget it. A guitar belongs in the rhythm section, where Count Basie put it. Freddie Green kept a four string beat for the Basie organization for decades, physically-wedged between the piano of the Count’s simplified plunking, an upright bass, and the driving drums. The horn players in the band were the melody makers.

For me, it’s hard to beat that sound of the big band. It’s like baseball—and democracy—when the group charges ahead together but every man gets his chance once in a while to take the lead. Here is the rare Basie tune featuring a Freddie Green solo (about 3 1/2 minutes in).

Another favorite musical gumbo is just that trio of the piano, the upright bass, and the drums. What an appealing sound. Tony Bennett has ridden it through a second career worthy of anybody else's first. Put a woodwind, a brass instrument, or an Italian singer in front, or keep it just to the three pieces.

Then you got your voice collaborations. At the top here is Gladys Knight and her Pips. So satisfying. This musical number should have been the main feature at my wedding last year, but I didn’t think of it until today. What are you gonna do? The sentiment is still true.

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Important Alert: Amazon is now advertising a DVD product called “WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Series.” It’s from Shout! Factory, which has been promoting the fact that it’s been trying to secure all of the music rights for the legendary series. (This has been a complicated matter for other companies.) Shout!, previous savior of both “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Newhart,” deserves credit for resurrecting so many of the great series of MTM (Mary Tyler Moore), the finest production studio in the medium's history, but this release is coming down the pike awfully quickly, only weeks after promises were relayed during a WKRP cast reunion at the Paley Center in New York. Details are still sketchy and an official media release awaits. Let's put it this way: I would be willing to wait well beyond October 28th if it means getting it just right. Now I won't be able to sleep tonight.

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Pete Rose cannot be forgiven. A quarter century of banishment from Major League Baseball and the National Baseball Hall of Fame is not enough. In a sport in which violent racists and white supremacists, as well as cheaters, gamblers, spouse-beaters, brawlers, and general criminals are enshrined with highest honors, Rose cannot be forgiven. In a country that has a rap sheet that includes genocide and has the pictures of revered slaveholders on its currency, he must not be allowed to participate in All-Star Game festivities at the invitation of the event’s host city. He simply mustn't.

The utter arrogance of this opinion from an aged hack cannot be stressed more forcefully.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A darker world

In a matter of three days, Elaine Stritch and James Garner. Actors with personality are abandoning us.

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Stritch claims she had her first orgasm on stage during Virginia Woolf's big dramatic scene. Here she is absolutely destroying it on The Late Show in 1996

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Garner's iconic lead characters in Maverick, Support Your Local Sheriff, and The Rockford Files should be instruction for conflict avoidance in U.S. foreign policy. They were a brilliant contrast to John Wayne and Clint Eastwood cinematic characters from the late 1950s through the '70s. Cold War bluster never seems to go out of style, but fortunately Garner never has either.

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Quiz question:
John Kerry describes this as "their moment of truth." He says they "arm," "train," and "support" them, and he accuses them of so far having "refused to call on them publicly to do the things that need to be done."

Is he talking about A) Russia's response to Ukraine separatists, or B) the United States' response to the Israel's current military operation in Gaza?

The answer is A. If you said B, you're on drugs or something.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Don't You Know That?

 

Luther Vandross died this month back in 2005. He was featured in this year’s Academy Award-winning documentary “20 Feet From Stardom,” a movie chronicling the work of professional background singers in the American music industry. Before launching his solo career, Vandross sang backup on David Bowie’s 1975 hit “Young Americans” (pictured above) and for artists like Chaka Khan, Barbra Streisand, and Ben E. King. It would be no surprise that Vandross would prominently feature a group of background singers when he released his debut album “Never Too Much” in 1981. Enjoy this track off that album, and appreciate the lost art of backup singing.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

All-Stars

Tonight, Major League Baseball is honoring Glenn Burke at the All-Star Game in Minneapolis. Burke was the first Major Leaguer to be out to his teammates and the first to acknowledge it after his retirement. Burke died of AIDS complications in 1995. Of course, we didn't see this tribute on television and heard nothing about it on the broadcast so there's that qualifier.

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And it's been at least a decade since they telecast the playing of the Canadian national anthem.

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LeBron James re-signs with Cleveland and Scott Raab, the Esquire writer that wrote the book about James bearing the title "The Whore of Akron" says he forgives the superstar forward-- "Acceptance, forgiveness, and love." Says online commenter "pampl," "It takes a big man to forgive someone you don't know after they've moved somewhere else. Scott Raab is kind of a hero."

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I defy you not to get weepy on this video. Maybe there's a chance for us.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

A Rivers runs through us

 
This world will try your patience, but I like to believe that I will never reach the point in which I'm offended by something Joan Rivers says. Isn't that akin to believing that Don Rickles is a bigot? Joan is a national treasure.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Our broken system


It's a problem that the United States Supreme Court has a favorite religion. (Does anybody believe that the Hobby Lobby verdict would have been the same if the arts and crafts retail store wanted to install Sharia Law inside their stores?) But another problem is that the United States still has an employer-based health insurance system. So very asinine.

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I'm not sure I would label xenophobia the cause of soccer resistance in the United States. Just because many of us agree with Ann Coulter doesn't mean we agree with Ann Coulter. Somehow we should get excited about soccer? It's the signature sport of British imperialism run by one of the most corrupt organizations on the planet. We're supposed to respect the outcomes of the matches even though Europol reports that more than 400 European matches have been fixed, HBO's Real Sports reports that $1.7 trillion will be bet globally on the World Cup this year, legally and illegally, and a match-fixing scandal has actually broken out at this year's World Cup, even though it has gotten almost no play in the American media.

ESPN is a monolith, and they determine what is "important" in American sports, so it will be interesting to see how the sport fares four years from now when the U.S. telecasts move to FOX. Will ESPN bail on the sport like they did to hockey when those games moved to NBC/Universal? (And by the way, how will the sport fare during the four intervening years between Cups?) ESPN is certainly on board now, but why wouldn't they be when the matches air only during weekday afternoons. This is Texas poker all over again.

Another growth problem I perceive: Hipsters here like the sport because it's unpopular. If it gets popular, they'll move on. Rugby or cricket is up next.

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I like the show Game of Thrones, but I don't understand why these fantasy series have to be almost entirely white and the people speak with British accents. It's a fantasy world.
A hundred years ago today, an assassination touched off the war that would end all wars. It's still being fought in the Middle East

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New Orleans.