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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Luntz and Counter-Luntz: The Word You're Looking for Is "Dissent"

In recent weeks I've had number of interesting discussions with friends, Facebook and otherwise, about the bizarre shift towards totalitarianism in American politics.  Of course, no political movement is possible without a corresponding cultural alignment, and the most lamentable trend in this regard seems to me to be the ascendancy of misanthropic polemical whores like Frank Luntz, who function more or less as the shock troops against the American tradition of anti-ideology, perverting our traditional inclinations into a cult of Mammon.[1]

Wisconsinites, whom I believe to be reasonably typical victims of Luntz et alia, demonstrate some pretty mixed reactions to the word "protest", judging by some friends' anecdotes surrounding pre-recall canvassing going on in this state.  One friend's story particularly resonated with me:  a man who angrily turned a canvasser away from his door saying that he was tired of all that protesting going on in Madison, and thought the "Wisconsin 14" had shown bad faith by leaving the state to forestall passage of Governor Walker's union busting bill.  In his mind, the Democratic senators should have "negotiated" with Walker.

Pretty odd interpretation of events, from any review of the factual situation.  Being minorities in both houses, and confronted by a Senate majority leader who called for extra-legal vigilante groups to physically hunt them down, there was always exactly ZERO possibility of Walker negotiating in good faith.

Yet it does make good sense when you realize that what voters have no interest whatsoever in good policy or standards of debate.  This is the key to Luntz' "success".  Our main concern is to be on the "winning" side, even if our role is largely limited to chosing the instrument of our own destruction.  It's just the American way.  The flip side to the American virtue of an open-minded lack of ideological commitment is the willingness to rationalize any horrific perversion as a victory for the forces of "Good".  In fact, the more complete the perversion, the more "virtuous" the pervert.  And vice versa.

Case in point:  the fate of the words "protest" and "protestor" after the Vietnam era.  That age of unrepented sin continues to fester in the American soul.  Memories like the Kent State shootings, Mai Lai massacre and Weather Underground violence pile miseries so thickly upon one another that, in the absence of a prolonged and thoughtful examination of the events, the only way to throw them off and move forward seemed to be to simply pick a winning side and demonize the loser. 

And with the credit of the GOP, American foreign policy and the military industrial complex on the line, what do you figure the chances of a pile of wet-behind-the-ears college kids coming out on top were?  Someone had to take the fall, and it was America's conscience.  From then on, the word "protestor" would be a pejorative, conjuring images of greasy long-hairs living off their parents' largesse and whose primary purpose in life seemed to be holding picket signs and blocking traffic for God-fearing citizens trying to get to their offices down town.

So the word has to go.  Even if the denotation is still technically correct, and still retains some romantic charm for a subset of society, in the elections and debates that ultimately make real quality of life differences in America it is a turd.

My proposed replacement?  Dissenter.  Denotatively it also depicts a factual situation where a disadvantaged minority resist the impositions of the formally constituted authorities.  But in the deepest reaches of the American soul, it evokes memories of valliant--and ultimately successful--struggle against an arrogant tyrant almost as hated as Mao or Stalin.  The term "dissenter" in American and English history refers to the 17th century people who opposed the established church on grounds of individual religious conscience but also the state's venality and corruption.[2]  The adventures and mis-adventures of those original Dissenters ultimately gave rise to the Anglophone tradition of republic and constitutional government.[3]

An observer no less acute than the reknown Alexis de Tocqueville recognized America's primary ethic as a civil religion, and analyzed it in these terms:

"The greatest part of...America was peopled by men who...brought with them into the New World a form of styling it a democratic and republican religion."

In keeping with the inherent contradiction of a populist principle establishing a governing order, it was subject to numerous, sometimes conflicting interpretations from the very start.  For example, the colony which eventually became the state of Connecticut was established by a group splintering from the original Puritan colony of Massachussets. 

The central quality is a commitment to the process of reconciling liberty with good order--not a bigotted clinging to unquestioned dogma.  There is no reason at all a true Dissenter cannot be a principled atheist or upstanding agnostic as well as a righteous believer in any of the various faith traditions.  This is borne out by the respect for the original Dissenters retained among almost all ethnic and religious or non-religious of American society to this day.

Get it?  Judges and duly constituted tribunes of the people "dissent". In the public mind, only self-centered hedonistic collections of venereal disesase "protest".

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the winner, the rhetorically and morally acceptable face of the opposition to strong-arm junta tactics of the likes of Walker and Fitzgerald.  Thanks for the template, Frank Luntz.

[1]  Yes, I think that metaphorical construction is well warranted, given the parade of ethics violations that haunt Luntz' career.  Just one example:  In 1997, the American Association for Public Opinion Research formally reprimanded Luntz for his inability to provide the standard support requested for some of his more outrageous claims.  In my mind Luntz' role in American culture is best analogized to that of an aggressive bowel cancer.  But only because I can't think of a fouler aberration.

[2]  There are plenty of though-provoking analyses of the English civil wars and the competing strands of political thought that they gave voice to.  In no way can they considered to be an unalloyed triumph of Good over Evil--the Roundhead hero Oliver Cromwell's campaign to impose his notion of a "Godly Nation" on Ireland resulted in the extermination of approximately 1 out of every 4 inhabitants of that island between 1649 and 1653.  But it clearly laid the groundwork for the predominant mode of limited government in the English speaking world.  Simon Schama passibly recounts the contemporary British view of those events in the book and television documentary, "A History of Britain".

[3]  An ironic result of Cromwellian dispensation in Ireland was the destruction of a far more ancient tradition of constitutional monarchy, Brehon Law.  This is not the place to launch into a lengthy discussion of its merits and demerits, but it is worth mentioning that this system of jurisprudence amounted to the formal accumulation of precedent and interpretation of legal principles by a class of professional scholars which even kings could not flout without suffering painful sanction.  Laws were created solely by the process of refined interpretation of precedent, much like the English Common Law tradition, rather than by executive fiat.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Happy Bloomsday, America!

June 16th is the annual celebration of Leopold Bloom's doomed wanderings through Dublin in 1904, as chronicled in James Joyce's classic novel "Ulysses".  And in the 21st century, reality finally catches up with and overtakes fiction. 

In 1921 a U.S. court banned Ulysses on the grounds that some of its graphic depictions of nudity and sexuality constituted pornography under the Postal Code.  And while that decision was reversed in 1933 by a judge who could only have failed today's more rigorous selection processes for illiteracy and cretinism, the private sector came to the rescue of public morals when Apple banned an online illustrated version from its iStore last year.

However, that victory had an even shorter half-life.  A couple months later, presumably realising that it would lose it's investment completely if it maintained the ban, and that nobody would likely access anything remotely smacking of literary merit anyway, Apple decided to give it a go after all.

Still, Ulysses can still claim numerous triumphs.  We were reminded recently that the real-life tribulations of one Henry Kahn, great-grandfather of actress Dervla Kirwan, may have inspired the nightmare courtroom episode in the book.  Kahn was forbidden by the notorious Sir Frederick Falkiner from testifying on his own behalf due to Kahn's blatent, obstinate and willful Judaism.

While the "Double Castration" sentence handed down in the clearly Ulysses-inspired digression within Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" stands as a worthy literary heir (IMHO), the book's actual legacy in the field of (juris)prudence is even greater.  Aside the from the miscarriage of justice in the conduct of the Bradley Manning affair, Wisconsin's miraculously "re-elected" supreme court justice David Prosser handed down an opinion on the controversial collective bargaining bill which, according to 50% of his colleagues, was riddled with error and faulty analysis.

And so it goes.  The more things change, they more they stay the same.  Although a court in 1921 may have affected offense by the onanistic happenings in Chapter 13 of Ulysses, "Nausicca", in fact, courts invented public masturbation.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Weaktard: The Obnoxious Word That Explains American Politics

Weaktard:  Noun and adjective, a portmanteau of 'weak' and 'retarded', a puerile term of contempt for an opponent

A couple of months back a good friend of mine gave me copies of the great books "Albion's Seed:  Four British Folkways in America" by David Fischer and "Born Fighting:  How the Scots-Irish Shaped America" by Jim Webb.  My pal is of proud Ulster Scots descent--but much more importantly, very active in trade unionism and local politics.  For nearly 20 years now my friend has been one of the core on-ground volunteer campaign workers for a line of great local and state candidates, like Senator Bob Wirch, who exemplify the best in Wisconsin's heritage of progressive politics.  Yes, those books do explore his ancestors' experience[1], but their real importance is explaining the social dynamics that win American elections in the 2010's--and offer us a jumping off point to think about alternate paths that American society might evolve into.

Contemporary Americans[2] have a shocking amount in common with those Ulster Scots who came to America in the 1700's:  they are both the products of broken societies.

Historical Populism, Dispopulism and Mispopulism
As described by Fischer and Webb, the border country between England and Scotland, whence the majority of these families originated before migration to Ireland and thence to the United States, was just short of being a lawless no-man's land.  The writ of neither crown had been particularly effective here, and folkways that were both staunchly un-ideological and un-sentimentally brutal flourished here.  In the absence of a reliable government, a man's surest remedy would be the strength of his own arm--and the loyalty of his kin.

This particular brand of populism diverged from its British and Irish counterparts considerably upon introduction of a very different sytem of class relationships in America.  The scope for individual ambitions provided by the vast American hinterland of the 18th century seemed endless.  No longer were tenant farmers locked, without even theoretical recourse, into abusive rack-renting relationships with tituladoes whose only claim to their land lay in crown grants arising from military conquest.  Military campaigns which the poor fought but which the aristocrats profited from.  Even if very imperfectly realized[3], the theoretical possibility of homesteading his own family farm was open to any willing lad, regardless of his origins.  This seems to have effectively dissolved the traditional antagonism between the rural poor and landed gentry, to the point where many were more than happy to embrace secession and Civil War on behalf of a slave holding elite whose interests were starkly at variance with their own.[4]  Those Ulster Scots in America still demanded shows of raw agression from their political leaders[5], but now they lost whatever progressive moral valence they originally had in Ireland.

Contemporary Echos
Sound familiar?  It should.  This minimalist, personal rather than institutional approach to governance is exactly what an idle elite devoted to preying on their fellow Americans have been praying to Moloch for:  a clear field, a total lack of effective opposition.  Apart from the disasterous and partially quantifiable effects failing to regulate and tax the wealthy and their corporate proxies, it articulates and magnifies a fundamentally anti-Christian, anti-social philosophy of hatred of self and others that alienates America from the rest of the world today.  It has rendered Wisconsin a black pit of corruption.

In this environment, where the electoral success necessary to provide meaningful opposition to Evil requires an ability to exhibit almost vicious aggression, all the national Democratic Party has been able to offer of late has been a tired, washed-up whore named Barack Obama.  Yes, there are proud exceptions on the state and local levels--and my pal's trade unionism and political work is a part of that.  But on the national level, where almost all key policies must be enforced, due to constitutional provisions such as the Commerce Clause?  Not so much.

The Way Forward Under Taboo
My conceptualization of this is still very much "in progress".  What's needed is an uncomprimising display of integrity and vigor by a candidate willing to do or die by actual populist ideas, not just some phony re-tread bullshit a la hedge fund millionaire like Mitt Romney or weaktard traitors like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama.  But this much I do know:  It cannot be presented as an ideological platform.

Modern Americans, despite the variety of their religious or ethnic backgrounds share with those first Ulster Scots immigrants a rabid fear of imposed credos.  They may well demonstrate a shocking lack of respect for others' beliefs and traditions, but Hell if they're going to submit to anyone else's.  Even if they're not particularly political or religious themselves, they have an incredible paranoia about the efforts or imagined efforts of anyone else to proselytise them.  This is why Obama, despite actively supporting or caving into every one of the Republican Party's demands can still be "credibly" labelled a socialist among America's unsophisticated and unideological electorate:  he keeps talkin' in abstract, bullshit language like "hope" and "comprimise" among nations.  That's "ivory tower, faggit-talk".

If and when the "Left" identify an electorally viable rhetorical framework, I don't know.  Still working on it.  Could have a lot in common with the reinterpretation of history like the one that worked so well to harness the progressive energies of the Irish Land Reform movement and Scottish enlightenment into the 19th century trade union movement.[6]  One thing's for damned sure, though:  worthless wastes of bumwhipe like Obama have to go.

[1]  I don't want to digress too far into my friend's pedigree, but it's a fascinating example of the many divergent threads of historical continuity and the way their distinctive individual character can seem to be temporarily submerged by those of their more dominant neighbors only later rise to the surface and assume more prominent leadership.  While the remainder of this post will focus primarily on the ideology-free character of early Scots-Irish politics and its current legacy in the U.S.A., it's worth noting that my friend's family left Ireland in the mid-1790's--just prior to the 1798 Rebellion.  In fact, reproductions of the diary of his original emigrant ancestor discuss at several points their connection to a Reverend James McKinney--a man praised for his courageous Irish patriotism in these terms by James Seaton Reid in the book "A History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland":

"His ministry terminated abruptly in 1793, for, preaching to a large open-air meeting at Ballinaloub, he took as his text, Ezek. XXI., 27 : "I will overturn, overturn, overturn it," and delivered " an inflammatory discourse," implying the threat of the overturning of the British Government.

Preachers sometimes complain that their sermons fall on listless ears, but it was not so with Mr. McKinney. Some of the loyalists among his audience reported his expressions; and he found it convenient to betake himself hastily to America, and there became a very distinguished minister at Rocky Creek, S.C., and died 16th September, 1802. A ballad composed in his honour by a local poet is now lost to history, save a few lines, one of which concluded each verse, declaring that:  '. . . At Ballinaloub he played the man.'"

Elsewhere Rev. McKinney is mentioned as a "Houstonite"--a supporter of the radically populist, anti-authoritarian views of Reverend David Houston.  To my knowledge, this never became a formal faction, but it does seem a clear precursor to the progressive "New Light" movement within the Presbyterian church.

The seemingly endless vistas for expansion into the 18th century American wilderness resulted in a greatly reduced level of friction between the elites and common settler folk as compared to the relatively narrow confines of the north of Ireland.  An ironic result was that the influence of progressive movements lasted somewhat longer in Ireland than in the nascent United States.  In Ireland, New Light Presbyterianism was more or less destroyed in the early 1800's, by internal schism, and to some extent British persecution for their involvement in resistance actions like the 1798 Rebellion.  Until then, New Light Presbyterianism had served an interesting political role in mobilizing the peasantry against the confessional descrimination and abusive rack-renting practices of established church elites.

The social utility of their progressive doctrines being less, their influence gradually faded, and I think my friend was entirely unaware of the heroic role his ancestors had played in the history of Irish nationalism and progressive politics.

[2]  Again, I don't want to go overboard with the digressions in the body of the post, but I think some explanation may be called for given my distinctive moniker.  My ancestors came from the very same county as my pal's--but obviously of the RC rather than Presbyterian persuasion.  Which is kind of interesting, because persons of BOTH persuasions can be found with the McGonagle name or variants thereof who cannot remember a time when their ancestors subscribed to a confession different than their own.

The reason I've chosen to explore in this post the specifically protestant Irish experience in America rather than the experience of my own ancestors is manifold:

1.  Historians typically date the earliest significant influx of Roman Catholic Irish into America at more than 100 years after the migration of their protestant neighbors, and therefore the protestant experience can be more clearly linked to the events of the American revolutionary period.

2.  Although the Roman Catholic church in the U.S. is by far the largest single denomination (I think like 22%), far more Americans subscribe to one or another of the protestant churches (maybe like 53%).

3.  Catholics of Irish descent are only a small minority of total American Catholics--maybe like 20% at most.

4.  Even the Irish brand of Catholicism as practiced in the United States is significantly different than that brand practiced back in Ireland.  I guess I can speak only from personal experience here, but the differences seem ENORMOUS to me. 

I think roughly 95% American Irish Catholics are so thoroughly American that they do not even recognize the deep, deep psychological centrality of the Christian story of Jesus' persecution, death and resurrection to Ireland's conception of itself as a nation, and the political rallying point the RC church represented during times of persecution by an alien aristocracy.  The outlook and behavior of Irish Americans is much more like their non-Irish and non-Catholic neighbors than their Irish cousins.

Maybe another 2.5% are radical conservatives in the Opus Dei / Mel Gibson tradition who regard anything short of the Latin Mass as heresy, and another 2.5% are interested in cultivating a deeper understanding of Irish church history, but don't feel particularly well served by the hierarchy.

Anyhow, while all that stuff is massively interesting, and some of it may be useful to provide context for my post here, I decline to elaborate further now.  Though I do have some vague plans to use the Irish RC experience as a starting point for another post about theoretical pathways that progressive movements can branch into the future:  "Everything Old Is New Again:  Is It Time for A Re-Think on Brehon Law?"

[3]  From page 751, section entitled "Backcountry Wealth Ways:  Border Ideas of the Material Order", of Albion's Seed:

"Throughout this great region where virgin land existed in abundance, most men were landless.  At the same time, a few families owned very large tracts. . . . By the last decade of the eighteenth century . . . . (t)he top decile of wealthholders owned between 40 and 80 percent of the land.  In many areas, one-third to one-half of taxable white males owned nothing. . . . "

[4]  And I don't think I have to remind many of my American readers that this self-loathing romance for an abusive past continues to this day.  But it may shock some of my overseas friends.  Crypto-Klan phenomena like the book "Bell Curve:  Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life" have tarted up in psuedo-scientific clothing the all the essentials of the old slave "morality" to the point where it was openly embraced by Tea Party douchebags like Wisconsin's own loathsome lout, Ron Johnson.

[5] I will not catalogue here the litany of voter intimidation and ballot-stuffing offenses that provide ample illustration of this aspect of historic American political culture, the books do a great job of that themselves.  And until you get a chance to read those books, I'd say viewing the film "Gangs of New York" does a fair job of rendering an approximate subjective equivalent.  It's about NY, obviously, and RC Irish experience rather than those specifically of Ulster Scots on the American frontier, but they have a lot in common in this regard.

[6] Like I said, I'm still working on it.  But in the meantime, you might enjoy a relevant episode from the awesome Scottish history series presented by Neil Oliver.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Where'd It All Go Wrong, America?

"What happened to you, McGonagle?  You used to be a GOOD cop!  Where'd it all go wrong?!", she demanded, or rather begged from the other end of the alley.

"It's these damned city streets, America.  These filthy, rotten streets.  No matter how hard you try, no matter how clean and upright a man you are when you walk into them, you walk away a putrid animal."

It was glib bullshit.  Or at least I thought it was at the time.  But it seemed like the only reasonable answer to a faded highschool princess who'd just seen the former star quarterback completely take the head off a total stranger in a darkened alley with a Midnight Special at point-blank range.

"You're a god-damned savage now, McGonagle . . . a god-damned . . . savage . . ."  Her voice quavered off into a blubbering white noise in the background as I massaged my temples, trying to force back down the bubbling cauldron of terror and self-loathing I'd come to recognize as the inevitable aftermath of committing an act as abominable as I'd just done.  I was now experiencing such things with a shocking regularity and had begun to formulate a list of suggested responses to them in the back of my head.

America, on the other hand, had no friggin' idea what the hell she was going on about.  She seemed to carry on for decades as if she were still the lilly-white pure virgin painted on some old Mary Pickford movie poster.  It takes increasingly massive doses of heroin to sustain this illusion, of course.  Certainly after a career as checkered as America's.  How could I put this to her?  COULD I put this to her?  She was certainly no virgin.  She'd probably serviced more people of all descriptions than the entire McDonald's(tm) franchise, sometimes simultaneously both at the front drive-through window AND from behind the counter.

No.  I decided quickly.  No, I could not explain this to her.  It was simply beyond the mental, moral and imaginative resources left to her after decades of self-abuse.  The denoument of this particular matter seemed pretty clear to me, however, and the re-education of a smack-addled whore figured in no part of it.  I was going on the lamb.  If-and-when the "Law" caught up with me, I would be on my own and offer no excuses.  Under no conditions was I going to render a mundane-factual account of events which had transpired, of how I had actually been duped by America into the wholesale slaughter of complete strangers in a dark city alley. 

First of all, even if a factual account were believed, it could not hope to save me from the hangman.  Second of all, it would only result in snapping the final barrier between America and decades worth of filthy deeds waiting to revisit her from the other side.

Foghorn Leghorn Speaks . . .

Is it possible to spirit channel a fictional character?  Specifically, the Southern-gentrified blowhard from the Warner Bro.'s 1960's "Foghorn Leghorn" franchise?  Based upon experiments performed over the weekend, I can report a firm and conclusive "yes".  But the ritual requires copious volumes of an obscure Sri Lankan stout called "Lion".  And Mr. Legohorn seems to have quite a bit to say about Wisconsin people and places . . . .

"The behavior on display before us in this instance constitutes a perfect SCANDAL in the eyes of our sacred parliamentary traditions.  This method of proceeding cannot call to mind words any loftier or more noble than "poltroon" and "knave".  I understand that the accepted standards of comportment may not be all they could in some of the darker corners of the great state of Wisconsin, but I see no reason to drag them into the sacred halls of our legislature." (Regarding the extradordinary violation of Wisconsin's open meetings law by which Republican majority leader "Big Fitz" Fitzgerald surreptitiously passed Gov. Walker's union-busting bill.)

"I am led to believe that Mr. Fitzgerald holds some strong opinions regarding the physical attractiveness, or lack thereof, of the typical Wisconsin voter.  No doubt the feeling is heartily reciprocated.  Indeed, I daresay that Mr. Fitzgerald's but-tocks are still sportin' the friction burns from his mother's desparate attempts to force in a feedin' bottle."  (Regarding Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald's comments suggesting that Wisconsin citizens "smell bad".  Stay classy, Fitz.)

"I obtain an uncommon degree of satisfaction from Represenative Ryan's enthusiastic sallies onto the rhetorical battlefield of economic policy; they are a reliable source of great amusement.  Only a comedic genius of Rabelaisian proportions or a complete imbecile would prescribe a tourniquet around the throat as a treatment appropriate for a patient dying of thirst."  (Regarding the brutally counterproductive austerity plan proposed by Janesville's Paul Ryan.)

"I personally find the extraordinary conduct exhibited within Waukesha county to be scarcely worthy of a mangey street mongel much less purported gentlemen and ladies.  It is a shocking disappointment, to say the least."  (Regarding the transparent fraud approved by the so-called Government Accountability Board during the recount in the Prosser/Kloppenburg race.)

"No, sir, I do not hold any degree in the biological sciences.  I cannot opine on the plausibility of a human male siring offspring by union with a she-goat.  As such, I decline to further entertain any notions regarding the true parentage of the Government Accountability Board's Kevin Kennedy."  (Apparently a reflection of the current esteem in which Mr. Kennedy is held, given the Prosser fraud in Waukesha and the approval of 3 recall elections against "Wisconsin 14" senators, despite literally hundreds of signatures found to have been obtained through fraudulent means.)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Oh Fudge: Is the Romance Really Over?

I have never heard of Sam Mayfield before.  But if this turns out to be true, it suggests that the Agape Love Feast between protestors against governor Scott Walker's union-busting bill and the police (or at least someone referred to as Sgt. Corcoran) is OVER.

See additional textual play-by-play at

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Washington V Jefferson: Franklin by TKO

In the buildup to the 2012 elections, we can anticipate candidates attempting to appropriate inaccurate depictions of the legacies of the Founding Fathers.  But when it comes to real history, pound for pound, and in any fight between Jefferson and Washington, I'd put my money on Ben Franklin.

I know that I can always count on the media company Disinformation to produce the goods.  They consistently offer a high octane blend of solid analytical reportage, cultural commentary and outright blasphemy.  I'm a particular devotee of their news aggregation site.

One recent article, and the attendant readers' comments particularly grabbed my imagination:  "Dancing at the Memorial of a Slave Owner", an examination of the events following the arrest of five persons for dancing near the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Of course the real importance of the article bears upon the current state of civil rights and free speech in the United States, not on Mr. Jefferson's personal stance on slavery.  The impression the piece left with me was a reinforced sense of America as a declining cultural as well as economic and military power, clinging desperately onto past imagined glories in a viciously ironic way that presents a tragi-comic contrast with the soaring notions of liberty articulated by Jefferson himself.  In that context I regarded the reminder of Jefferson's slave owning as an unnecessary distraction from current crises.

But the question of the contrast between the talk and the walk of our Founding Fathers is serious enough to bear repeated visits, especially as competeing factions in this super-polarized nation step and stumble over one another to appropriate their legacies in the 2012 party nominations season.  And the contrast between America's two favorite founding fathers, Jefferson and Washington is probably a great place to begin.  It provides the seminal branching off point to explain the two most popular sects in American political philosophy, just as the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael split did after Ireland's Civil War and the Whig/Tory split did after Britain's Glorious Revolution:  these philosophical divisions are very much alive today, all the more so for having a matter of centuries to incubate and articulate.

With a view towards the limitations offered by the blog posting medium, I'll limit myself to extremely brief discussions of Jefferson and Washington's response to what I think are the three most pressing issues confronting America today: economic policy, foreign policy and individual liberty.

Before launching into an exploration of the particularities of each man's world view, I think it's worth reminding ourselves of the overall historical context in which Jefferson and Washington lived.  Yes, this was the expansive "Age of Englightenment", when the scope of human affairs first truly becomes global and the power and appeal of parochial power structures and philosophies is successfully challenged by seekers of a more universal and empirical outlook.  The notion of Progress is born, and the focus of intellectual endeavour becomes more about expansion rather than a slavish devotion to perpetuating archaic elites.

However that is a serious double-edged sword.  It came at the expense of the wholesale extermination of indigenous peoples by European colonizers and a persistent legacy of political and military antagonisms that haunts us to this day (e.g., Afghanistan?).  Not that we could insist that persons so deeply caught up in the eye of the storm as Jefferson and Washington truly understood precisely how their response in word and deed would be viewed 200+ years on, but it does provide us in 2011 with the requisite context to evaluate the internal conflicts events must have provoked within them. 

Both of these men were of the Virginia Tidewater Elite, by hereditary right members of the very exclusive club who held the only local opinion that counted in America's largest and wealthiest colony on the eve of the Revolution.  They viewed themselves, not the unwashed masses of impoverished immigrants pouring over the backcountry, as the intended beneficiaries of this American Project, which was fundamentally expansionist in nature--NOT democratic.

Jefferson probably has a slight edge over Washington in enduring popularity.  I would ascribe this to the man's rhetorical skills and protean ability to (seemingly) convincingly reconcile deeply conflicting impulses of idealism/pragmatism.  When viewed from the perspective of utility for the common man, the primary appeal of historical studies lies in its application to contemporary polemics.  And in this, Jefferson was a past master.

True enough, Jefferson's father came from rather obscure origins and his place in the elite owed rather more to the inherited prestige and wealth of his mother's family.  But I say this is really the psychological whetstone against which Jefferson obsessively sought to sharpen his own impressive talents, a vague sense of inadequacy nagging at the back of his mind that continually drove him forward to achieve more and more intellectually and politically.  Whereas more socially secure grandees like the Fairfaxes or the Carters may have found relatively smaller compensation from such efforts, even would they have been blessed with the native ability to achieve them, Jeffeson had a profound hunger for recognition among his peers that he could scarcely have obtained in any other way.  Regarded by contemporaries as tall and handsome, he was, however, also physically awkward and thoroughly unathletic.

With regard to economic policy, Jefferson would likely be seen as very libertarian by today's standards--for most of his political life.  He vigorously opposed the establishment of the perpetual corporate form [1], anything smacking of a federally co-ordinated industrial policy [2], and the establishment of a central bank [3].  However, as history resoundingly vetoed his stance on all these counts, his greatest practical economic legacy is probably the vast resource base brought to the U.S. by the Louisiana Purchase--an incredible irony considering that the unprecedentedly massive federal expenditure is probably the single clearest violation possible of his stated libertarian views.

None of this should suprise us, perhaps, if we consider my thesis that a primary psychological motivation for his political career was a desire to secure a place for himself within the Virginia landed elite.  By any standard you could care to consider, Virginia in Jefferson's day was the single largest, wealthiest and most poweful of any North American colony; the status quo would have suited him quite nicely, had not the British aristocracy insisted on elbowing the local elite out of the way at the feeding trough.

Jefferson's foreign policy, on the other hand, was most definitely interventionist, the most prominent example being his strong advocacy of support for the French Revolution of 1789 and against British forces arrayed to oppose its spread.  What may be his single most famous quote:

"The Tree of Liberty needs to be watered from time to time with the blood of patriots."

A lot has been made of Jefferson's misunderstanding of the fundamental differences in the nature and causes of the American vs. the French revolutions (i.e., political and economic vs. social and economic, respectively).  Maybe some of this is unfair, since we can more clearly perceive with hindsight the glaring contrast of the seminal issues, the Ameican revolution being sparked by a fight between local and British elites over the economic spoils of the French-Indian War, and the French revolution being a result of the wholesale lack of credibility and effectiveness of the Ancien Regime. 

I argue that this failure is exactly what we should expect from Jefferson, a man whose political prestige rested to some extent on his effectiveness in obtaining French support in America's vulernable nascence.  I would further argue that his aristocratic removal from the concerns of the common man, his high-flown rhetoric and personal financial struggles aside, constituted a formidable barrier to his ability to grasp the fundamental nature of events in France, the character of which was in some ways completely alien to the American experience anyway.  America at that time was a vast storehouse of untapped resources being withheld from its thin population only by the geopolitically pragmatic policies of British imperial resource management.  The Old World, on the other hand, had been thoroughly populated for centuries and provided drastically less scope for economic mobility, meaning that any progress available must necessarily come at the expense of some class or other--remarkably like the U.S. position today.

As regards individual liberties, let's just admit upfront that nobody could work the rhetorical magic like Thomas Jefferson.  "Life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" and all that.  However, I don't think we can completely ignore his disappointing record on slavery as an anachronistic misintepretation on our parts.  Even if you're willing to ignore Jefferson's endorsement of the infamous "Three Fifths Comprimise"[4] and the fact that his failure to emancipate so much as one slave stands in total contrast to the inter vivos action of Benjamin Franklin, twighlight Abolition campaigner, and Washington, whose will contained detailed and rigorous provisions for the emancipation and economic support of slaves that he owned, Jefferson's rape of Sally Hemings would not stand as an ornament to the principle that "all men are created equal" from the perspective of any historical age.[5]

All in all, were the Gods of Historical Anachronism to permit us a visit to Monticello, I think our minds would leave with two impressions:  1.)  TJ was sure a gas for a party and there's no end to the flow of flowery talk from the man; and 2.) he surely had not clue #1 what was going on down outside the House of Burgesses or literary salons.

Washinton's philosophy and career are a thorough contrast to Jefferson's.  Both men may be said to have arisen from the less secure fringes of the Tidewater elite, but Washington's rise clearly had more to do with practical action than rhetorical flourish.

Washington's family had a long history in Virginia affairs.  George derived his his nickname among the native peoples of the American frontier, "Town Destroyer", from local memories of the vehemence of his great-grandfather, John Washington, in pursuing the colonial policy at expanding at the expense of native communities.  But the Washingtons' legacy would probably have been regarded at the time as a fleck of flyshit in comparison with the pervasive influence of grandees like the Randolph family of Jefferson's maternal relations.  High mucky-mucks like the Randolphs ordained the expansionist warfare; middling gentry families like the Washingtons actually fought them.

Which, however, is not to say that Washington in the slightest considered himself an economic libertarian.  While his decidedly pro-central government stances with regard to Hamilton's central bank policy and the crushing of the Whiskey Rebellion should be clear enough indications of his proclivities, the apparent incongruity of a "conservative revolutionary" deserves some exploration.

Washington's motivations in the rebellion were more pragmatic and down-to-earth than Jefferson's from the beginning:  a front row seat at the imperial feeding trough.  I think Joseph Ellis, author of "His Excellency:  George Washington" does a great job in highlighting this aspect to Washington's worldview in discussion of two seminal events.

First, I consider Washington's rebuff at the hands of an arrogant (and incompetent) Lord Loudon, when seeking a commission as an officer in His Majesty's regular forces.  This could hardly be interpreted as anything but a personal insult to his dignity.  In many ways, Washington was THE military pointman during the early phase of the French and Indian War, the single thread of consistency of campaigns from the war's inception through Braddock's defeat.  Granted, that involvement usually manifested itself in ghastly blunders rather than martial glory; the very event triggering the conflict in North America was the murder of a French diplomat who, under all conventions, contemporary and modern, should clearly have been under Washington's personal protection.  But Washington's organizing abilities, zeal and personal bravery went unquestioned by all eyewitness accounts.  Washington's demand here was not the abolition of social distinction or aristocracy--merely the acceptance that his actions had earned him those perogatives.

Secondly, and more to the point, Washington was a thorough-going capitalist.  In 1763 he banded together with a number of his colonial peers to form the Mississippi Company, for the purpose of establishing a quasi-feudal state on the North American frontier, where settlers would in effect be serfs of the investing proprietors such as himself.  This proposal was quickly vetoed by the Crown, on the grounds of its inconsistency with the various treaty rights of First Nations in the region.  However, lest any of my British friends succumb to a premature sense of self-righteousness, a substantially identical scheme, to be called Vandalia, was approved by the Crown in 1770--under the aegis of Brish-born investors.

Where did Washington stand in regards to foreign policy? I don't think it'd be correct to call him either interventionist or isolationist--he was a non-ideological pragmatist.  While freely admitting the fact that Ameican independence was due in large part to the generous (but in his opinion belated) French naval and artillery support at Yorktown rather than any brilliant strategy concocted himself, he expressed strong opposition to American involvement in the crises engulfing Europe in the wake of the 1789 French Revolution.  Perhaps his most famous quote on the score, from his 1796 farewell address:

"The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel. "

Washington was equally pragmatic with regard to his philosophy on personal liberties.  Whereas Jefferson's intellectual approach to life demonstrated itself in a slick rhetorical smoothing over and selective igorance of the contrast between walk and talk, Washington was at least explicitly recognised the tension and made some tangible efforts to reconcile the two, if but in an uneven manner and in language that would be considered unambiguously offensive today.  Washington's emancipation of his slaves and provision for their sustenance within his will has already been touched upon.  In a letter to James Duane, dated 7 September 1783, with regard to America's policy of clearing First Nations people from their ancestral lands, Washington wrote:  "The gradual extension of our settlements will as certainly cause the savage as the wolf to retire." 

On balance, if I were somehow able to visit Mount Vernon in 1790, I think it would be an occassion of great disappointment.  No doubt the stolid, thoroughly dependable Washington would come off as a rather dull, but completely indispensable character, but he's hardly likely to have regarded an ordinary joe like me as worth the time of day.  Likewise, I have real doubts as to whether Washington's particular stoic brand of charisma would be suited for the glitz-and-flash obsessed clone wars that constitute much of modern corporate and political culture.

WTF?  Where does Franklin come into this?  The title suggests that Franklin's the real winner!
And indeed, I think Franklin is the real winner here.  His example clearly holds far more relevance to the American of today than either Jefferson or Washington for precisely the reason that he is usually overlooked in discussions of the origins of American political culture--he was never president.  He didn't represent the any facet of the hereditary elite.  He was a townie, from a working class family from a frigid, relatively densely populated 2nd-tier colony far from the expansionist debate surrounding the Ohio country.  My analysis proceeds from one brutal fact:  regardless of the relative population density of the U.S. vs. China or any other country on earth, the scope of economic activity today clearly most closely resembles the stable-but-constrained atmosphere of New England in the 1700's as compared to the Wild West of Virginia and Pennsylvania during the same period.

Which is not to say that Franklin didn't have a growth-oriented economic outlook.  He invested in frontier settlement schemes, though perhaps not with as much enthusiasm as planters Washington or Jefferson.  But his legacy vis-a-vis economics is concerned more with intellectual expansion--invention--than the mere opening of untapped resources or markets.  The franklin stove, the lightening rod, any number of his personal innovations seem a much more apt starting point for our own economic explorations than some non-existant unchartered territory on earth or improbable terra-formed planets from which we're exiled by light years worth of space and technology.

And let us not forget that it was Franklin's phenomenal success in the information technology industry of his day--type printing--that allowed him to accumulate the influence and private wealth necessary to become a prominent advocate for public infrastructure projects like libraries and road and sewage improvement, and launch his career in national affairs.[6]

Franklin's achievements in foreign affairs stand head and shoulders above those of any other Founding Father.  His success in convincing the French foreing minister, the arch Comte de Vergennes, to support American idependence despite any reasonable hope of tangible benefit and considerable risk to France's own finances, as regularly and loudly trumpeted by his Bourbon League conterpart, the Count of Aranda, must stand as one of the all-time championship feats of diplomatic ingenuity.  As already alluded to with regard to Washington's military shortcomings, it seems highly unlikely that independence could ever have been obtained without the assistance, especially naval, rendered by France at Yorktown.  Put this all in the context of the inevitable blundering infighting within the nascent American foreign service and incessant offenses against French court protocol committed by patriotic but provincial colleagues like John Adams and Arthur Lee, and the achievement becomes nothing short of miraculous.[7]

The particular quality responsible for Franklin's success here was an almost unique ability to sense the priorities of his counterparties--a quality distinctly at variance with the lofty aristocratic demeanor with which aristocrats like Jefferson, Washington and Lee had been taught to conduct themselves since birth.  And in the modern world where, like it or not, we are continually confronted by multicultural diversity in opinion and objective, this quality will clearly be at a premium.

However, Franklin never simply allowed this ability to play him into a weak passivity.  Although initially opposed to John Jay and John Adam's preference for negotiating peace terms with Britain in secret, and contrary to the protocol expected by both the French Crown and the Continental Congress, lengthy discussion convinced him of the pragmatic wisdom of his colleagues' selected course, given the realpolitik of European empires and America's profound disadvantages in terms of political prestige and the money and resources needed to conduct a prolonged war.

Franklin comes out on top again when you consider his legacy on civil rights.  Having made his fame and fortune in publishing controversial political tracts and he consistently and strongly advocated free speech.  He was the author of many pieces about the importance of the tolerance of other religions and towards nonbelievers.  In 1786 he freed his slaves and became a founding member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.

The tally seems totally clear to me.  On the basis of relevance to contemporary Americans, and the strength and consistency of his moral stances with his economic, foreign and civil rights policy practice, Franklin takes the day by a TKO.  And, on top of it all, the guy clearly liked his occasional jar; writings, like his parody of white supremacist douchebag James "Left Eye" Jackson in the "Sidi Mehmet Ibrahim" letter prove it.

[1]  Amongst my favorite Jefferson quotes are the one to the effect that perpetual corporate existence " . . . suppose(s) that . . . the earth belongs to the dead, and not the living."  See TJ's letter to the governor of New Hampshire quoted in full at Chapter V, Volume IV of "The Life of John Marshall", by Albert Jeremiah Beveridge.

[2] Jefferson opposed consolidating the states' debt from the revolutionary war on the federal level, the establishment of a central bank to coordinate monetary policy and the trade treaties with Britain in furtherance of America's manufacturing independence from Old World Europe.  Very few today outside of Ron Paul supporters seem to regard any of these ideas with much enthusiasm, and I personally have yet to see any convincing depictions of a scenario where trade dependance upon foreign powers seems like a good idea.

[3]  Yeah, I know--already mentioned TJ's opposition to the central bank at #2.  So I created these footnotes before my final edit--mea culpa.  This should at least go some way into convincing the reader that these blog posts are the creation of a sophisticated, multimillion dollar political conspiracy.

[4]  Lest any white readers be tempted to lazily dismiss the "Three Fifths Comprimise" as a black civil rights-only issue, they should remember the disproportionate voting power this gave to the large slaveholding states like Virginia and South Carolina, themselves long in thrall to the cronyish domination of planter elites like Jefferson.  Historian Garry Wills, in his book, "Negro President:  Jefferson and the Slave Power" demonstrates that Jefferson could not have won the 1804 election had it not been for the disproportionate representation provided by the comprimise.

[5]  In my opinion, the DNA evidence is pretty unambiguous on this point.  Despite efforts of various TJ apologists to throw suspicion upon some other member of the Jefferson household, the facts are clear that many Hemings descendants share the Y chromosome haplotype of the Jefferson family and that there existed a direct stairwell between TJ and Hemings' rooms in Monticello.  To blythly discount the inconvenient testimony of contemporaries, antagonistic as they may have been personally to Jefferson, is also to ignore the explicit testimony of slaveholders regarding mores under this regime.  From the diaries of Mary Chesnut, antebellum aristocrat of South Carolina:

 "God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system and wrong and iniquity. Perhaps the rest of the world is as bad—this only I see. Like the patriarchs of our old men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children—and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody's household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think."

[6]  It's probably worthwhile at this stage to also note the contrast in Franklin's particular brand of information technology entrepreneurship with some modern day exponents--like the douchey hedge fund manager and silver-spoon recipient Mitt Romney.  Whereas Franklin was almost completely self-taught came up from an impoverished background on the streets of his native Boston, later in London and Philadelphia, by a combination of business savvy and active involvement in community politics, Romney put his Ivy League education solely to use for private gain in the modern economy's LEAST socially redeeming end of info technology--big finance robs the economy of about $8 out of every $10 invested in it.

[7]  My favourite book on this score is Stacy Schiff's "A Great Improvisation:  Fraklin, France and the Birth of America"