#1338 Notes on the State of Virginia

#1338 Notes on the State of Virginia

"But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

— Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia

We discuss Jefferson’s only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson completed his first draft of the book in 1781 and first published it anonymously in Paris in 1785. It is widely considered the most important American book published before 1800.

#1334 Benjamin Rush with Stephen Fried

#1334 Benjamin Rush with Stephen Fried

"He and Jefferson talked about everything."

— Stephen Fried

Benjamin Rush was a physician, politician, social reformer, humanitarian, educator, and a signer of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Rush was a leader of the American Enlightenment and an enthusiastic supporter of the American Revolution. Born the son of a Philadelphia blacksmith, Rush touched virtually every page in the story of the nation’s founding. It was Rush who was responsible for the late-in-life reconciliation between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. This week we speak with the author Stephen Fried about his new book, Rush: Revolution, Madness, and Benjamin Rush, the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father.

#1322 Roosevelt and Jefferson

#1322 Roosevelt and Jefferson

"Few people grow in office; few people grow in life. Roosevelt grew in life. He became more interesting, more sensitive, more thoughtful ... [Roosevelt] became more enlightened as time went on."

— Clay S. Jenkinson

Prompted by a listener request, and recognizing the 100th anniversary Theodore Roosevelt’s death, this week Clay Jenkinson discusses the differences, and a few similarities, between Roosevelt and Jefferson.

#1278 Adams, Bees and Guns

#1278 Adams, Bees and Guns

"I believe that we have the right to revolution."

— Thomas Jefferson, as portrayed by Clay S. Jenkinson

President Jefferson answers listener questions about his relationship with John Adams, replacing the Constitution once every generation, bees at Monticello, and the Second Amendment.

#1255 Show Mister Jefferson

#1255 Show Mister Jefferson

Prompted by a listener letter, Clay answers the question, “If Thomas Jefferson appeared before you today, what would you want to show him from our time?”

Let's Not Paint Islam with a Broad Dark Brush

The appalling and barbaric activities of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL), coupled with the recent murders in France and increased terrorist threats worldwide, have unleashed a very widespread Islamophobia, particularly in the United States. President Obama has been severely criticized for refusing to identify this wave of barbaric activity as "Islamic." Turn on any television talk show and you can now hear commentators saying that there is something dark and demonic at the very heart of Islam and the Koran that seeks to torture and destroy the "Infidel" indiscriminately; that Islam seeks worldwide dominion (a renewed Caliphate); that Muslims are natural terrorists and the sooner we all realize this the more likely we are to keep our heads.

This is paranoia. And dangerous nonsense.

Don't get me wrong. I know there are thousands, even hundreds of thousands of radical Muslims worldwide, perhaps even a few millions, who are determined to attack non-Muslims (Jews, especially Zionists; Israel; Christians in "Islamic" lands; the secularists of western Europe; and the Great Satan itself, the United States). Some of these radicals operate inside the United States. More are trying to come. Some are embedded in our military. They are perpetrating their sadistic crimes in the name of a certain strain of Islam, and they are finding justification for their thuggery in they way they interpret some verses in the Koran.

Even though the American people are suffering from severe Middle East fatigue, and we are heartily sick of the nightmare of that portion of the globe (a nightmare we have helped to create and exacerbate), I believe we are going to have to find the resolve to join a coalition of other civilized nations, including Jordan and Iran, to crush ISIS and its cousins with whatever force is necessary to make them disappear. If we do not, we are likely to pay a severe price at home and abroad.

But we should not regard ISIS as Islam any more than we should regard the Irish Republican Army as Ireland.

You would think it would need hardly be said that the overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide, something approaching 99.99%, are perfectly peaceful people going about their lives in ways startlingly similar to the way we go about our lives. They live in houses. They cook meals. They visit shops to buy what they need. They love their children and want the best for them. They attend religious services. They engage in sport. They are as appalled by ISIS as we are, and nearly as bewildered.

It would be a tragic mistake for us to paint all Muslims with a broad, bigoted, intolerant, and reductionist brush. When Timothy McVeigh brought down the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, we did not brand all people of the rural heartland as anarchists and kooks, even though thousands of peaceful and law-abiding people shared some of McVeigh's critique of the government of the United States. Just because some thousands of Mormons (or rather, people of Mormon heritage) practice polygamy, and thousands of monogamous Mormons feel sympathy with that practice, we don't brand Mormonism as a polygamous religion. Al Capone was a gangster. He was not Chicago. He was not capitalism. He was not America. Just because the Reverend Pat Robertson said that the 9-ll attacks were God's retribution for abortion, homosexuality, and separation of church and state, we don't dismiss all evangelical preachers as out of touch with basic reality. ISIS is not Islam. It is a tiny virulent strain of "Islam." It must not be allowed to discredit or tarnish Islam. All responsible Muslim clerics have a duty, in my opinion, to repudiate the rhetoric and barbarism of ISIS with unambiguous condemnation.

I have good Muslim friends in Chicago. They are Palestinian Americans. They both have good professional jobs. She's an educator. He works in media. They have one child, a boy, another on the way. They drive SUVs, own a nice house, go to movies, watch over their aging parents, get traffic tickets, worship in moderation, shop at malls, spend time when they can with their large extended family. They believe in the American Dream.

Hmmm. Just like us.

They are not particularly fond of Israel ("the Zionist State"). They decry many of America's foreign policies, particularly with respect to Israel and the Middle East. But they are sickened by what radical Islamic groups are doing all over the world. More than that, the see that this recent wave of barbarism might lead to a backlash against the more than one billion Muslims worldwide who are perfectly peaceful and law-abiding. Nothing could convince my friends to commit an act of violence against non-Muslims—or against anyone else. Like the rest of us they were appalled by 9-11. Unlike the rest of us, they spent many subsequent months frightened for their safety in the United States. They were, and are, subject to violent denunciations by perfect strangers. They understood why some Muslims in the rest of the world cheered as the World Trade Center's towers came down, but they did not condone such "celebrations."

Even the Muslims of the most volatile regions of the Middle East tend to differentiate Americans from official American policy. One of the most fascinating moments in John Hockenberry's 1996 memoir Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheel Chairs, and Declarations of Independence, is when he attends the funeral of the Ayatollah Khomeini (June 11, 1989) in a wheel chair. More than a million people were in the streets of Tehran shouting "Death to America, Death to the Great Satan." As Hockenberry struggled to move forward through a sea of angry Muslims, those around him invariably stopped their shouting to offer friendly greetings and help move his wheelchair along through the mass. Then they resumed their anti-American slogans.

They don't "hate us because we are free." Most Muslims don't hate us at all. Those who do hate us tend to point to specific foreign policy concerns: economic colonialism, the military-petroleum-Hollywood complex, and principally our seemingly uncritical support for Israel. Hate has many expressions. Violence is very seldom one of them. The overwhelming majority of Muslims are perfectly peaceful. Just like you.

Islam is one of the world's great religions. It is monotheistic. It has in its 1400-year history generated great architecture, great city planning, beautiful and at times profound literature, a large body of pure science, philosophy, and theology, and a deep respect for the stability of family. When Europe was lost in a morass of ignorance and illiteracy, Islamic scholars and clerics kept alive the work of Aristotle and countless other ancient writers. True, there are pockets of darkness in today's Islam, and to a certain extent the great world religion "seems" to have been hijacked by small numbers of vicious extremists and nihilists to justify their rage against the West (not to mention Islamists of a different stamp). But there are pockets of darkness in Christianity, too. And in Judaism. And in Hinduism. And in Rotary and Chambers of Commerce, for that matter.

The worst thing we could do is lump all Muslims into one grim box. It's not accurate. It's not fair. It's not in keeping with our Bill of Rights. It's not in keeping with the deepest ideals of the American tradition. Above all, it's counterproductive to the goal—which is to enjoy peace and security no matter where we happen to live or travel.

We all know these things. We have to practice them with good sense and moral courage.

Insult to Injury: Stereotyping American Indians in the Wake of Conquest

North Dakota's Indians have been amazingly resilient. Their cultural survival is little short of miraculous. We have the opportunity to enter a new era of mutual cultural respect and reconciliation. At the very least it is time for all of us to insist on zero tolerance for cultural slurs and racism, stereotyping, and cultural appropriation.

Dumb College Hijinks and Cultural Reconciliation in North Dakota

Just when you thought race relations on the northern Great Plains were moving into a new era of greater respect and sensitivity, along comes a disheartening setback. By now you are aware that a group of University of North Dakota students wore t-shirts to an off-campus Grand Forks event called Springfest that featured a caricature of a male Indian in a feathered headdress drinking from a beer bong, with the words "Siouxper Drunk" displayed in bold capital letters above the imagery.

UND President Robert Kelley issued a statement condemning the message on the shirts as "an unacceptable lack of sensitivity and a complete lack of respect for American Indians and all members of the community." Kelley rightly pointed out that Springfest was not a university event and it did not occur on campus. North Dakota University System Interim Chancellor Larry Skogen said the shirts exhibited "ignorance, intolerance and hatefulness." Skogen, who wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on Indian relations, said, "I am indignant about the disrespect conveyed in the repulsive messages on those T-shirts and how this conduct hurts those insulted."

The tastelessness of the stunt would be hard to exaggerate. The stereotype of the "drunken Indian" is one of the most vicious slurs in the long sad history of white-Indian relations. Alcoholism is a serious problem in the American Indian population (as it is in my white family). It has complex roots involving trade policies, poverty, unemployment, forced assimilation, unviable reservations, cultural collapse, and despair—but the best way to think about it is within the context of the conquest of the continent by Euro-Americans between 1492 and 1953 (the year Garrison Dam was dedicated). It is, in the terms of the great University of Colorado historian Patricia Limerick, just one of the "Legacies of Conquest." The only decent response by non-Indians looking at this problem from the outside in would be magnanimity, sadness, sympathy, a willingness to pitch in in any way outsiders can (by funding every useful treatment and education program), and a willingness to explore the historical dynamics of colonialism in the history of the United States. Needless to say, "drunken Indian" gags, even if not intended to be racist, even if they have more to do with collegiate hijinks than with a deliberate intention to hurt, are profoundly insensitive and ugly.

In addition to that, the t-shirt incident has to be seen as yet one more in a long series of aftershocks following the official retirement of the "Fighting Sioux" nickname and logo in 2012. I doubt that the nitwits who hatched the t-shirt gag knew how darkly they were scratching one of the most serious cultural wounds in North Dakota life. They are probably just as bewildered by the storm of outrage that has followed their stunt as all the rest of us are by the gross insensitivity of what they did. I very much doubt that they set out to be hateful. Still, when you see the images of the offensive shirts, in group photos of students hamming for the camera with the now-inevitable "thumbs up" and "oh, yeah!" pose, all you can do is shake your head and ask, "What were they thinking?"

We can all follow the dumb logic of some late night planning session: "Sioux=Sue=Sioux-per—cool!; since we plan to get wasted at Springfest after a long winter semester; wouldn't it be a cute commentary on the whole mascot controversy to …?" The thing I cannot understand is why someone in the student group didn't say, "I'm not so sure this is a good idea. Don't you think this is going to upset a lot of people? Let's keep brainstorming." As the controversy heated up, the t-shirt fulfillment company, CustomInk, released a statement, saying, "We handle hundreds of thousands of custom t-shirt designs each year and have people review them to catch problematic content. But we missed this one." Really? They might want to fine-tune their "problematic content" meter.

My view is that the best response to these students is not to punish them but to use this as an opportunity to teach them (and all the rest of us) to be more thoughtful about inter-cultural relations. In essence, the lesson is really simple: one culture should always be very careful about the ways it describes, depicts, or appropriates the iconography of another culture. This is a particularly important thing for historically-dominant cultures to remember when characterizing historically-subject cultures.

Meanwhile, I think we need to calm down. We are living now in the Era of Cultural Outrage—on both sides, on virtually every question. Spend half an evening hour on Fox, then half an hour on MSNBC and you will get a lifetime supply. Outrage can be fun—it is certainly good for ratings—but is almost always oversimplifies complex situations and reinforces cultural and political polarization, rather than lead to a more harmonious and enlightened community. These students did not come out of a vacuum. They are products of a certain cultural milieu. They have grown up at a time when North Dakota is groping its way towards a new understanding of the lives, the history, the culture, the religious observances, and the challenges of our Indian neighbors, whose homelands we inhabit: the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Ojibwe, Assiniboine, Cree, and Dakota. The UND incident is, among other things, an indication of how much cultural healing we still need to pursue at UND, in North Dakota, and throughout the United States. The fact that there is a substantial American constituency that still regards the name Washington "Redskins" as inoffensive is a sure sign that the road to cultural harmony is going to be a long one. It is going to take a very deep commitment to mutual understanding and reconciliation on both sides, and a remarkable level of patience and tolerance—in both the Indian and the non-Indian community.

The worst thing about the UND t-shirt slur is that it comes at a time when there is such good news in Indian Country. More American Indians are graduating from high school than ever before. More are going to college than ever before, and many are earning advanced professional degrees. There is good and hopeful economic news on the reservations—thanks to casinos, energy development, mining, increased investment in tribal businesses. Reservation nutrition programs are making progress in addressing diabetes and other major health concerns. Tribal colleges (for which North Dakota has been a pioneer) are doing really important work--at home--where most Indians prefer to be educated. A broad national pan-Indian cultural renaissance is now entering its second phase. Some Native American languages are making a slow comeback. A significant burst of new Native American literature has emerged in the past couple of decades, led by one of our most gifted living writers Louise Erdrich.

This sort of incident rattles around every coffee shop and bar in North Dakota for a couple of weeks. I heard some pretty ugly remarks from people who know better while I was writing these words. This is a golden learning opportunity for all of us, but I hope we remember that these are, after all, college students, doing the dumb stuff that college students do (remember?), and that we need to give more attention to their cultural enlightenment than to the easy art of righteous condemnation.

Let's Cut Off Their True Food Supply: In Other Words, Let's Ignore Them Now

So the white supremacists have come to the soil of North Dakota. Our job is to make sure it is not fertile soil.

Now that the initial flurry of angst is over, and the street confrontation of September 22, 2013, has peacefully come and peacefully gone, the best thing we can do, I believe, is to leave them alone to their first winter in Leith. They are in for a considerable surprise. As you and I know, but they might not yet or not quite, winters are very long and not altogether balmy in rural North Dakota, on the northern Great Plains. After six or seven months of high winds, ground blizzards, below-zero temperatures and rawhide wind chill, plus the cabin fever of living almost entirely indoors in a town that doesn't even have a quick shop or a bar, they may choose to pick up stakes and winter hereafter in Scottsdale or Hemet. Or perhaps they'll tuck away their Nazi flags and hateful rhetoric, form an Optimist Club, and start writing rural redevelopment grants for poor little Leith and Grant County. Maybe we should flood them with hotdishes and fleischkuechle—kill them with kindness as my mother-in-law would say—in the hopes that they clog up their arteries, settle into their recliners, and start purchasing the premium NFL Sunday Ticket Package. Once they start watching Real Housewives of Orange County, our troubles are over.

I do not take their presence in our homeland lightly, but I believe that this unwelcome visitation is a test of our character and the robustness of our rural democracy. We would be equally foolish to under or to overreact.

We need to remain vigilant, because such types occasionally do (rather than say) appalling things, but as long as they are just verbal extremists wearing anti-social body art, the best thing we can do now is completely ignore them. They feed on us, on our outrage, on the righteous attention we give them. The way to hurt them is not to call them names or try to cut off their access to rural water and sewer, but to ignore them and assume that as long as they don't commit illegal acts they are free to mimeograph Aryan newsletters and spy a Jew behind every American success story. I don't blame the media for giving them the attention they have received so far—it is big news, national news, when a group of self-proclaimed extremists invades a wee pastoral village of 15-26 people in one of the most unsensational states in the union. But now that we have noted their presence, expressed our displeasure with their silly but dangerous doctrines, and put them on notice that we are watching their every move, we should turn away in quiet disgust.

I'm with Voltaire (1694-1778) and the Enlightenment: "Madam, I disagree with what you say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it." But the minute they burn a cross on someone's front yard we'll unleash the full fury of the Civil Rights Division the U.S. Justice Department on them.

I had never been to Leith before last Sunday. I have driven past it many times, but nothing had ever compelled me to turn off the highway and drive three miles over gravel roads to see the hapless little village. Now that I have been there I really like it and, like almost everyone else, I wish the supremacists would take their British Israelist flags, their Jewish conspiracy theories, and their dark hearts elsewhere. I defend their right to exist and to spew, but I don't like it that they have chosen us to be their petri dish, and frankly I wonder why. They did not choose Massachusetts or San Francisco. One of my friends said they made a fundamental strategic mistake. Instead of Leith, they should have located in nearby Heil, population 15. They could have painted over the town sign to Seig Heil. In addition to that, New Leipzig is close at hand, and up at the other end of the state is Walhalla, if they are really planning a Wagnerian Götterdämmerung.

Meanwhile, I'm a little suspicious of some of the calls on the state's radio talk shows, stoutly defending the newcomers' first amendment and property rights. I agree in theory, but I wonder what the talk show chatter would be if instead of white supremacists Leith had been invaded by a cell of Radical Environmentalists, or PETA activists, or Marxist-Leninists, or Anti-Frackers, or Shoshone Indians, or—God forbid—Sharia Muslims. We'd be more likely to hear "lock and load" than "live and let live."

It would be interesting to know how many white supremacists are scattered across the North Dakota landscape. I don't just mean tattooed and swastika white supremacists (extremely rare), but also "maybe after three drinks at the bar with like-minded friends" white supremacists, and "well, I really don't like to talk about it much, but I do sometimes think we white folks have lost control of our own country" white supremacists, and "I'm not prejudice (the d usually omitted), but I'm noticing an awful lot of Ne-groes in the oil patch" white supremacists, and "why am I supposed to feel sympathy for Indians when they spend their time cashing their welfare checks and huffing—why can't they get their @#X#X together?" white supremacists. I don't know how many full-bore white supremacists there are in North Dakota, but the number is more than zero, and if you add in the percentage of people who would never display a Nazi symbol or fly a Confederate flag, but who are not altogether unsympathetic with at least some parts of the doctrine of chief supremacist Craig Cobb and his friends, you begin to feel a little uneasy

Anti-Semitic incidents are rare in North Dakota, but they do occur. Contempt for the lifestyles and values of American Indians is so routine that we hardly notice ourselves. And to be openly anti-Muslim—well, that's just American patriotism since 9-11.

I listened carefully for a while last Sunday as Craig Cobb explained his views to members of the North Dakota media, who let him hold forth without interruption and made no attempt to argue with him. Much of it didn't make sense to me, but I did hear him say that the Civil Rights bills of the 1960s and 1970s were a social disaster that unleashed a black reign of crime terror in our cities; that Jews control the world, particularly Hollywood and banking; that our lax immigration protocols are producing the mongrelization of the American dream; and that the Founding Fathers intended a White Christian Nation and they knew whereof they spoke. Heck, that's just Rush Limbaugh on a bad day, except perhaps for the anti-Semitism.

The best thing about the protest rally in Leith was the presence of about 50 Lakota Indians and their friends. In their marvelous dignity and their prayerful seriousness of purpose, they made us all realize that the presence of these Aryan skinheads among us is a very grave and disheartening thing, a sad day in the long, hard, uneven arc of social justice that is the unfinished history of North Dakota. A setback, but potentially also a breakthrough.

And I fell in love with the Lakota woman who spoke forth at the height of the tension: "Come set up shop on the Rez—see how that works out for you." The lovely assembly of 300 anti-supremacists laughed.

A long healing laugh.