October 2009 Archives

The weight of the Ol’ Bloviator’s teaching and writing obligations, not to mention his moonlighting as a windbag-for-hire (who works cheap, if you need one, by the way) continues to keep him cyber-sidelined most of the time just now, but he begs your indulgence as he offers his belated take on the Nobelobamadrama. Ludicrous as it may seem in some ways, Barry O. is far from the weirdest choice the Nobelniks have made. After hall, he was preceded in Oslo by the likes of Henry the K., who bombed his way to the Vietnam peace table in 1973, and then, of course, in 1994 there was the former terrorist Yessir You’reaFart, who reigns unchallenged as the ugliest Nobel laureate ever. Obviously the Nobel Peace Prize has gone to some fairly pugnacious folks over the years and never more so than when it was bestowed on President Theodore Roosevelt (the first American so honored), who was one of the most war-like people who ever traipsed the planet. Oslo came calling after TR stepped in to negotiate a settlement in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Having accused William McKinley of having a “chocolate-éclair backbone” for his reluctance to declare war on Spain in 1898, then assistant secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt pushed vigorously for American intervention against Spain in Cuba on all fronts, encouraging the famed Hearst newspaper syndicate to step up the sensationalist reporting (or fabricating) other wise known as “yellow journalism” that so effectively inflamed American public opinion in favor of war.
Not content to see his country at war, Roosevelt was determined to go mix it up himself. He resigned his post in the Navy Department to raise his own fabled regiment of “Rough Riders,” whose somewhat exaggerated conquest of San Juan Hill emboldened Roosevelt to nominate himself for the Congressional Medal of Honor. Suffice it to say, Roosevelt the Warrior had not suddenly become Roosevelt the Pacifist by 1905. On the contrary, he really would have preferred to allow the combatants in the Russo-Japanese rumble to fight to the last man, or at least, as he put it, “see the war ending with Russia and Japan locked in a clinch, counterweighing one another, and both kept weak by the effort.” His overriding concern in the matter, however, was that the outcome of the war should not be decisive enough to upset the balance of power in Asia and threaten our expanding economic and strategic presence there. In the end, the settlement that TR brokered, or imposed, satisfied neither side, especially not the Japanese, who had gained the upper hand in the conflict and really got their lips all pooched out after the militant mediator failed to secure the reparations payments he had indicated might be forthcoming from Russia. Feeling a bit betrayed, the Japanese came away from the affair harboring deep suspicions of America’s intentions toward them and Asia in general.
Wary of the Japanese, but determined they not get uppity, TR did nothing to alleviate their concerns in 1907 when he ordered four naval squadrons, otherwise known as “the Great White Fleet,” on a two-year, round-the-world cruise, which, oh, by the way, just happened to include a week-long stopover in Yokohama, where school children waving American flags greeted the flotilla. While they professed to be honored by this visit, Japanese leaders knew full well, of course, that what they were witnessing was an elaborately (and expensively) staged example of Roosevelt’s “Big-Stick” (as in “speak softly” and carry one) diplomacy. Fresh from their own recent butt-thrashing of the Russkie Navy, however, the Japanese were not terribly impressed, nor were they disabused of their suspicions of U.S. intentions. TR didn’t live to see it, of course, but these hard feelings would come back to haunt his cousin Franklin early one Sunday morning in 1941.
This is not to blame ol’ TR for World War II or to excuse in any way the buck-naked Japanese aggression that precipitated it. Still, this was certainly one case where a Nobel laureate’s efforts to maintain peace contributed to a long-term outcome where lots of people got shot. Another example came along just fifteen years later when another U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in creating the League of Nations as part of his promise to make World War I the “war to end all wars.” No sooner had the United States finally entered the nearly three-year-old fray against the Germans in 1917 (much to the delight of an aging TR, of course) than Double-W began spoutin’ off about how our Allies (primarily France and Great Britain) were really pursuing a non-punitive “peace without victory,” which he presumed to outline in the famous Fourteen Points, , unilaterally declaring them to be the war aims of all the Allies.
By 1918 all these pledges about “respect for national boundaries” and “self-determination of nations” didn’t sound half-bad to the wobbling but not yet totally whipped Germans (who would later claim that they would never have agreed to an armistice had Wilson not promised them a settlement they could live with happily thereafter.) Unfortunately for poor ol’ Woody, the Brits and Frenchies had been seeing their toes rot off in them trenches and breathing in that raunchy German mustard gas for more than four years by the time peace finally broke out, and they were not about to let any high-minded idealist-come-lately stand between them and making Germany pay out the kerdoodle. Unwilling to trust anyone else with his dream of securing a “League of Nations,” which would have the ostensible means to render any future war all but impossible, Wilson himself led our delegation to the peace conference at Versailles. He was overmatched from the start against the wily Allied diplomats who sensed Woody would agree to just about anything in order to keep his precious League intact. In the long run, instead of the “peace without victory” they had been promised, the Germans were stripped of more than 10 percent of both their population and land area in Europe, plus all of their colonies elsewhere, and saddled with what would eventually add up to a cool $32 billion in reparations payments. You don’t need me to tell you, I’m sure, that the protracted economic suffering that almost inevitably ensued was made to order for a certain whacked-out Austrian corporal, who capitalized on German pain and pride in order to get himself installed as dictator and went on to makes his bones as a tin-horn tyrant by proceeding to grab back all the land and people that the Treaty of Versailles had taken away.
Meanwhile, Wilson who had left everything but the family jewels on the table in Versailles in order to get everybody else at the conference to sign off on his precious League of Nations, would, ironically enough, wind up strangling his own brainchild by refusing to accept the modest amendments to the League charter that were offered by Senate Republicans. Despite its rejection by the United States, the League limped along through the isolationist 1920s and 1930s before showing itself utterly incapable of slowing down, much less stopping the fascist juggernaut fashioned by Hitler and Mussolini. By banking too heavily on the dream that had inspired his Nobel selection, Woodrow Wilson had unwittingly made World War II, if not inevitable, a lot more likely than it might otherwise have been.
Back in the Here and Now, the Nobel folks based their recognition of Oby on his “vision” on issues like nuclear disarmament, climate change, and human rights and “the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of the values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.” The left-leaning Oslo crowd may have thought they were doing Obama a favor by encouraging him to act as if he is president of the world, but if so, they have simply demonstrated once again their total tone-deafness where American politics is concerned. Last I knew, the only place over which the latest Nobel Peace laureate had been elected to preside was the U.S. of By-God A., and things ain’t going so swimmingly over here right now, in case they haven’t noticed. Oby already had a lot of people complaining that he cared more about polishing his image elsewhere than doing his job to the satisfaction of the folks back home; so this may be a case where the Nobel recognition will have to be lived down before it can be lived up to. Beyond that, if they’re giving out awards for admirable intentions instead of solid accomplishments, I think it’s high time I got some credit for my lifelong crusade to stamp out death by natural causes, not to mention my selfless dedication to outlawing taxes on beer. Our president clearly has good intentions, but then so did Woodrow Wilson and even Theodore Roosevelt, in his own way. Good intentions may well be enough to get him to Oslo, but both history and folk wisdom suggest that Oby had best think carefully about where they might take him from there.

Fatherhood: Public and Private

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In addition to the tsunami of students, classes, letters of recommendations, dissertation chapters, and graduate exams, that comes with having the world's greatest job, the recent deafening silence here at Cobbloviate has also been the consequence of the ol’ Bloviator’s unfortunate tendency to say “yes” when he should be saying “not only no, but Hell no!” (This quality was also attributed to President Warren G. Harding, whose father was reputed to have observed that had his son been a daughter, she would have been perpetually in “a family way.”) At any rate, one such ill-advised “yes” led me up yonder to UVA where I proceeded to bore them cross-eyed for a couple of days. On the way back, however, we made what was my first trip to Monticello, the modest little farmstead of the fabled Mr. Jefferson. I’m no expert on T.J., but I know enough to suspect that J.F.K. was pretty close to dead-on in 1962 when he told a White House assemblage of forty-nine Nobel Prize winners that they represented “the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."[
Whatever one thinks about certain aspects of Mr. J’s life, there is no doubt that he was one extraordinarily smart dude. There are more than enough innovations and contrivances at Monticello to keep one’s head spinning for days, and these were the work of one of the most respected humanists in our nation’s history. When it comes to matters mechanical, most great thinkers seem to have been as hopeless as Sarah Palin at a Mensa meeting. Certainly, “voracious” doesn’t come anywhere near describing Jefferson’s appetite for books. The groaning shelves at Monticello don’t even begin to do justice do his uncontrollable book-lust, for their contents represent the second library he assembled after the first was practically given to Congress after the Red Coat pyromaniacs torched its book stash during the War of 1812. If there was anything that Jefferson was as passionate about as books, it was probably wine. No eighteenth century equivalent of “Mad-Dog 20-20” ever passed his lips, I’m pretty sure. He spared no expense to have the best wines he could get from anywhere he could find it in Europe and elsewhere for his special cellar. Come to think of it, there were lots of areas where the ol’ man spared no expense, including the incredible home he built at Monticello over the course of twenty-eight years at a cost (excluding the value of the slave labor involved) estimated to be over $100,000 even way back yonder in dollars. Jefferson had been born into a well-to-do family to start with, and he didn’t exactly marry down when he won the hand of Martha Wayles Skelton, whose substantial inheritance upon her father’s death effectively became his. As the owner at one time or another of 10,000 acres and as many as 267 slaves, he was considered not only one of the richest men in Albermarle County but one of the richest in Virginia as well.
After Mr. Whitney finally decided to invent his gin in 1793, the insatiable looms of the British textile industry fueled an explosive expansion of cotton-growing across the lower South’s plantations. The resulting resurgence in demand for slaves meant that Jefferson’s human holdings began to account for a steadily greater share his assets. By 1822 his 267 slaves might, by a fairly conservative estimate, have been worth $100,000 or so in the right market. Jefferson knew the value of his slave property full well, for on more than one occasion he had been forced to sell some of his slaves in order to reduce his chronic indebtedness. Since slaves were both labor and capital, every new slave baby was a most welcome addition to the Monticello population, and let’s just say the ol’ T.J. probably wasn’t roaming around the slave quarters preaching abstinence. In fact, he confided to his farm manager that he considered “the labor of a breeding woman as no object, and that a child raised every 2. years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man.” Hence it was not simply on humanitarian grounds that he cautioned overseers against overworking or abusing pregnant slave women, adding piously that “ in this, as in all cases, providence has made our interests and our duties coincide perfectly.”
The first-rate docent who took us through the house actually ‘fessed up that Jefferson had fathered at least one, if not all, of the children born to the “mighty-near-white” slave, Sally Hemings. Hemmings had come into the household as a wedding gift to Mrs. Jefferson from her daddy, the notoriously horny and predatory John Wayles, and most folks think she was actually Mrs. J’s half-sister.(Given that all of the slaves named Hemings that Jefferson acquired subsequently were possibly also his in-laws, the old country song, “I’m my own Grandpa!” might have had special resonance at Monticello.) On the question of slavery itself, however, our guide could only say that Jefferson truly “hated” slavery but just couldn’t manage to get “out from under it.” It was true enough that the Sage of Monticello frequently expressed his angst over slavery as an “infamous practice,” which, he thought, left “the rights of human nature deeply wounded.” The practice of slaveholding, he famously declared, made him “tremble” for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Yet although Jefferson’s public expressions made him one of Virginia’s leading advocates of emancipation, in 1782 when the Virginia legislature passed a law allowing private manumission of slaves, Jefferson made no move to take advantage of the statute. In fact, save for his proposed Ordinance of 1784, which would have banned slavery from the western territories after 1800, he directed most of his energy into efforts to outlaw the further importation of slaves into Virginia, a move that, let’s face it, stood only to enhance the value of the slaves already held by planters like Jefferson himself.
I don’t doubt for a minute the sincerity of the feelings Jefferson expressed or that he found the practice of slavery anything but loathsome. What Jefferson “felt,” however, and what he actually did about his feelings were clearly two different things. This was the guy, after all, who carried on with Sally Hemings despite his declaration that "[t]he amalgamation of whites with blacks produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character, can innocently consent." The real reason for the angst-ridden Jefferson’s failure to put his money and his mouth in the same place on the slavery issue was just that, money, or the perpetual lack thereof. Complaining constantly of mounting financial obligations, Jefferson refused to “willingly sell the slaves as long as there remains any prospect of paying my debts with their labor.” Since, of course, he was “governed solely” by concerns about the “happiness” of his slaves, Jefferson explained that it would therefore be “worth their while to extraordinary exertions for some time to enable me to put them ultimately on easier footing . . . the moment they have paid the debts due from the estate, two-thirds of which have been contracted by purchasing them.” Not only am I dubious of Jefferson’s claim about how much of his indebtedness could be written up to his purchases of slaves, but I’m certainly not sharp enough to comprehend the logic by which the slaves he had actually bought were obligated to pay for themselves while remaining his property.
Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and surely a fitting check-out date for its ostensible author. His death, along with that of John Adams the same day, was rightly mourned as a great loss for the nation. It was in every sense a much greater loss for his family, particularly for his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, who after serving as her widowed father’s First Lady, essentially ran his household at Monticello for the rest of his post-presidential life while coping with eleven children and an improvident husband of her own. The reward for her devotion? An estate crippled by $107,000 debts run up by her high-living Papa. When the wolves could no longer be kept away from the door, Jefferson’s beloved Monticello and 550 acres of land sold in 1831 for the munificent sum of $7,000.
A number of historians have pointed to George Washington, John Randolph, and other notable Virginians who freed their slaves in their wills. At first glance, this was morally preferable to failing to manumit at all, but even so, the real economic sacrifice here fell on the heirs of large slaveholders who saw a sizable chunk of what the old man could have left them disappear in a puff of posthumous humanitarianism. Of the seven slaves Jefferson freed either during his lifetime (two) or in his will (five), only two were not named Hemings. Tragically, just before his manumission was to take effect, one of the slave carpenters at Monticello saw his wife and children sold at auction to three separate buyers in order to pay down some of ol’ Marse Tom’s massive debt.
My visit to Monticello left me all the more impressed with Jefferson’s intellect and intellectual curiosity. On the other hand, actually seeing the splendidly appointed 11,000-square-foot mansion where he lived and then walking along the grounds and noting the scarcely 100 square foot foundations of the huts occupied by the people who labored from dawn to dusk to support his pampered lifestyle did nothing to elevate my estimate of him as a person. For that matter, neither did the desperate straits in which he left his devoted daughter, Martha. It might well be argued that some portion of her father’s indebtedness could be marked up to his overindulgence of his children and grandchildren during his lifetime. There was also some truth in the contention that some of Jefferson’s economic woes arose from misfortunes that might have befallen anyone. Still, the overriding reality for me is that, for all the time he spent bellyaching about his debts and bemoaning the fact that he had to sell a faithful slave or lacked the cash to purchase that slave’s spouse, here was a man who, so far as I can see, rarely denied himself anything material or aesthetic that he wanted or prized and could possibly be had. We are urged frequently to judge public figures by their public accomplishments rather than their private shortcomings. That’s easier said than done, once you are aware of the latter, of course, and in this case, my admiration for Jefferson’s sacrifices as a “father” to our country simply marks the sacrifices he refused to make for his own family (or the bondsmen whom he liked to characterize in the same terms) as all the more perplexing and regrettable.

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