Thursday, October 31, 2019

Cleaning up the Jefferson monument

Jefferson Memorial aims to clean up a microbial colony of algae, fungi and bacteria that has tarnished the monument’s dome. (Kirk D. McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Grand Duchess Ivanka Donaldovna reminding her papa that other great men have had it just as tough as he has:
Somebody was thinking it would be pretty amusing if the "inventing where facts fail them" Jefferson was complaining about was a reference to the campaign slur claiming he had fathered a child on an enslaved woman, which was actually true, of course (actually six children, and it's hard to imagine Martha didn't know about it; the woman in question, Sally Hemings, was her mother's half-sister, and a very central person in the household after her mother's death).

Is Ivanka quoting a sinful president begging for sympathy over wicked and salacious accusations that are in fact true as she seeks to console another one?

Sadly, no, as a great blogger used to say:

The campaign where Jefferson was attacked with rumors that he had a black child (a technique emulated two centuries later in the 2000 campaign of that George W. Bush who everybody now agrees is such a hell of a nice guy, whose people in the South Carolina primary spread the ratfuck rumor that John McCain's Bangladeshi-born adopted daughter was really his own out-of-wedlock biological child) was in 1804, and Jefferson's letter was written in the aftermath of the 1800 election, in a very fraught situation. The big ratfuck of that year was actually from his camp, rumors spread by partisan ex-Federalist Alexander Hamilton about his former ally President John Adams, that he was mentally unstable, and that he had secret plans to marry one of his sons off to a daughter of King George III and start an American royal dynasty.

The voters were sick of Adams in any case, and the Electoral College wound up split evenly between Jefferson (with Hamilton's support) and Aaron Burr and thrown into the House of Representatives, where it became subject to an endless series of revotes going on well into 1801 before the intrigue finally ended up landing Jefferson in the White House, and inaugurating a cliché that still lives, echoed so many times by Barack Obama, that party is an illusion: "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists."

Incidentally there's something I've been wanting to say about Jefferson and his generation since August and that 1619 issue of the Times Magazine, with its extraordinary opening essay by Nicole Hannah-Jones, which is that it really pointed out to me a way of learning to live with those guys of whom I'm so incorrigibly fond—not of forgiving them, which isn't something I can really as a white person assert the right to, but of learning to live with them, as family, and honor the things they did right without ignoring the lives they lived wrong, or to allow ourselves to benefit, let's say, from the legacy they left of ideals and structures that seem so irremediably poisoned by the cruel and racist uses to which they've been put.

What Hannah-Jones suggests (as you wouldn't guess from the rightwing critique that treats the whole project as a simple cataloguing of horror) is that there truly is a goodness to the ideals of the Declaration and the Lincolnian second revolution in particular, which is proven by the devotion of African Americans to believing in it, over the centuries, dying for it and organizing for it, demanding to make it real: that all men truly are created equal and government by the people shall not perish from the earth—proven in the struggle, in the ordinary military way from Crispus Attucks to Hannah-Jones's own father joining the Army in 1962
The Army did not end up being his way out. He was passed over for opportunities, his ambition stunted. He would be discharged under murky circumstances and then labor in a series of service jobs for the rest of his life. Like all the black men and women in my family, he believed in hard work, but like all the black men and women in my family, no matter how hard he worked, he never got ahead.
So when I was young, that flag outside our home never made sense to me. How could this black man, having seen firsthand the way his country abused black Americans, how it refused to treat us as full citizens, proudly fly its banner? I didn’t understand his patriotism. It deeply embarrassed me.
and in the political way of figures like W.E.B. Du Bois
As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “Few men ever worshiped Freedom with half such unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries.” Black Americans had long called for universal equality and believed, as the abolitionist Martin Delany said, “that God has made of one blood all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth.” Liberated by war, then, they did not seek vengeance on their oppressors as Lincoln and so many other white Americans feared. They did the opposite. During this nation’s brief period of Reconstruction, from 1865 to 1877, formerly enslaved people zealously engaged with the democratic process. 
and culture
When the world listens to quintessential American music, it is our voice they hear. The sorrow songs we sang in the fields to soothe our physical pain and find hope in a freedom we did not expect to know until we died became American gospel. Amid the devastating violence and poverty of the Mississippi Delta, we birthed jazz and blues. And it was in the deeply impoverished and segregated neighborhoods where white Americans forced the descendants of the enslaved to live that teenagers too poor to buy instruments used old records to create a new music known as hip-hop.
And what she concludes is, in effect, that African Americans have been working really hard to make those famous old words true from the very beginning, and it occurs to me in turn that the way for white people to contribute to making them true is to join in. When African Americans are equal in the political economy is when the words of Jefferson and Lincoln will stop being a lie, so that's what needs to be done. If you want to feel fond of Jefferson (I do!) you want to redeem his promissory note, as he was unable to do himself, or didn't even try. The patriotic thing is to fix that: not to deny that he was doing it wrong, but to force his words to do it right.

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