Homo homini rodentius est

A Patrician Idyll

I know I should probably want to hate this image and everything it represents, but I can’t because it’s so damned perfect. Frankly, I admire the commitment that BB shows — in the midst of a near-Depression, with the raging rabble verily at the gates of the compound! — to a lifestyle and an ideal that seems quaintly antique in a culture that paves over its history and sells out its future for a quick buck.

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

Standing Over Jefferson’s Shoulder

Jefferson draft Declaration of Independence

I made a pilgrimage this afternoon to the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue to see something special: a draft of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson’s hand. For a moment I resisted the impulse to go, arguing with myself over the value of totems when what really matters are the ideas, not the artifacts, blah blah blah. Thankfully I lost that argument with myself. Totems and artifacts are important – they bind us to the particulars of abstract ideas and history; they allow us to imaginatively jump across the expanse of time and connect directly with the humanity of our ancestors. They help remind us that history, of even the most momentous variety, is made by people.

The documents, two sheets of paper or perhaps parchment, filled on both sides with Jefferson’s incredibly compact handwriting, were amazing to observe. Unfortunately these were not early drafts – there were no scratch outs or arrows indicating where sections should be moved. That would have been wonderful to see, a window into his mind as a writer, but what we have is invaluable. This draft, prepared by Jefferson for handoff to the Continental Congress, contains the famous condemnation of slavery that was later excised in order to guarantee sign off by some of the Southern states.

The way the documents were presented – standing up in glass cases that allowed viewers to read them from a distance of about 12 inches – one could imagine peering over Jefferson’s shoulder as he took painstaking care to prepare a flawless copy. There were things that were amusing and touching about the way he prepared the document. Though a draft, he took care to embellish the manuscript by hand drawing the kind of large type a printer would use to call out “United States of America”. He clearly wanted to convey the importance of what he was doing.

I spent awhile pouring over the papers, noting the particular style of his handwriting – the way he made his d’s and his t’s, how he used punctuation and, I admit, trying in vain to see of I could catch him using a semi-colon incorrectly (I could not). It was great fun. But what struck me as more moving than witnessing the document itself was observing a grandfather and his grandson (pictured above) discussing it and what it meant. As the older man recited the well known chronology of American independence the young man stared intently at the handwritten words on the page. Watching them I remembered the first rush of recognition I experienced when, as a teenager, it dawned on me for the first time that all the history I’d been taught in school, all the characters whose images and names were carved into stone pediments – the country itself – was the invention of men and women of flesh and blood, frail and courageous and imperfect and full of hope. When that moment of recognition comes it’s a wonderful thing.

Taking to the Streets

Anti-Prop 8 Protest Greenwich Village
An Army of Lovers: Hundreds of people protesting the California ballot initiative outcome.

Protests of the outcome of the California Proposition 8 ballot initiative were held all over the country today. I ran into the New York protest as it marched up Broadway toward Union Square. One of the protesters — the fellow in the leftmost image above, was running up to the windows of a diner and sticking his sign, which called for equal rights to love, into the faces of straight couples. They studiously avoided his glare as they ate their eggs. Walking west on 14th street I ran into them again as they came down 6th Avenue, heading toward Christopher Street. Ironically, they marched right past 15th Street, without being aware of the Mormon temple that resides there. Given the role of church organizations in getting the ballot initiative passed and the [extraordinary role of the LDS], I wish they had scheduled the protest for churches and temples on Sunday. Even still, while the marriage issue does not carry the gravity of the AIDS protests of the late 80s and early 90s — it sure was good to see angry queers in the streets, again.

Just Who Has to Change in This Election?

8 is Enough
Clever visual pun seen in Greenwich Village: Obama + “Eight is Enough” (get it?)

In my [last post] I hinted at the Factor that Dare Not Speak its Name in the Obama/McCain race — namely, race. At the time, Obama had just come out of his convention with a modest bump that McCain quickly countered following his selection of Sarah Palin. Since then, Democratic partisans have started to acknowledge the possibility of what must have seemed to them utterly impossible: Obama could lose. A [blog post] on The Huffington Post by Adam McKay entitled, “We’re Gonna Frickin’ Lose This Thing” has generated close to 3000 comments. But McKay blames the press for not holding the Republican’s feet to the fire. The same press that, just a few months ago, was criticized for being too friendly to Obama. McKay’s rant against the press is unsophisticated and knee-jerk. Their bias is a bit more self-interested: they simply want to be in front of the wave. When the Iraq war was popular, they turned a blind eye to its trumped-up rationale. They only became critical of Bush and his war after his popularity was plummeting.

When Obama (or any Democrat for that matter) looked to be a shoo-in, the coverage was clearly soft on Obama and critical of the Republicans. But, with the race tight, their blatant support has softened… allegiances are shifting. [New polls] like the one published this week in the Washington Post showing that McCain enjoys an advantage with likely voters largely on the strength of a large lead among whites is bad news for Obama in any number of ways. It suggests that he has lost the working-class white vote to McCain, as he did to Hillary. And this morning on the Sunday news talk shows, pundits were talking about the fact that 30% of “undecided” voters were saying they might not vote for Obama because they “didn’t know enough about him”. That sounds better than saying they won’t vote for him because he’s black.

The Obama campaign has to address the issue of racism directly, though I can’t imagine how they do it without further alienating the people who are already disinclined to vote for him. Perhaps a major address by Obama, akin to Kennedy’s 1960 speech about his religion, that reassures whites by acknowledging racial fears while allaying them. A challenge to Americans to change their perceptions, as well as their politics.

Politics as (un)usual

Savior, or sacrificial lamb?

How wonderful it was to see a black man nominated to run for president as the standard bearer of a major American party. The Democratic convention was a clockwork of civility and unity, as well it had to be given the daunting challenge they face going into the fall. I felt while listening to Obama’s acceptance speech that it was robbed of the moment by the prosaic requirements placed upon it. Held down to earth by pedestrian needs to “introduce” the candidate to the national audience and “show strength” by attacking McCain, what might have been (should have been) a speech for the ages was played somewhat safe. Perhaps only those with nothing to lose (like Ted Kennedy in 1980) can afford to let their rhetoric fly. And Obama, the receptacle of liberal dreams of redemption, risks losing a lot.

I’ve been struck by the parallels between the Obama candidacy and that of Jimmy Carter in 1976. Then, as now, Democrats were poised to benefit by years of Republican corruption and public anger. They selected a little-known governor of a small state who seemed to embody moral redemption. But, unlike then, Obama is not showing the same kind of strength with the general electorate that Carter showed. His 8 point “bump” coming out of a successful convention is only half of what Carter [enjoyed] at the same point in his run and less than a third of the gain that Bill Clinton experienced in the year he ran against Bush Sr. Is it really plausible that after 20 months of campaigning the American people still do not, as the pundits claim, “know” Barack Obama? Of course not. So what explains his weakness relative to McCain in a year when Democrats should be sleepwalking into the White House? Three guesses — and the first two don’t count.

Looks like Sarah has landed her biggest catch, yet.

If Obama is presenting his candidacy as “Not Your Father’s Democrat”, John McCain seems to be positioning his as “Change Your Father Can Live With.” Hence, his surprising selection of obscure Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. The CP [Clueless Punditocracy] are, once again, flummoxed by the choice — as they were by McCain’s rebound last year, Hillary’s collapse and Obama’s ascent — missing, as apparently McCain’s pollsters have not, that this election is more about change than experience. But Republicans are guessing that Americans, basically conservative, would prefer incremental change rather than a more radical leftward shift. They are also taking a page from history, betting that a less-than-perfect VP will not diminish the ticket (think Dan Quayle). Although she may well implode over the next few weeks, Palin could well read as a breath of bracing air out of the Wild West — a latter day Andrew Jackson in high heels — riding into Washington while flying the banner of traditional values, and [early indications] say that her choice has finally given the conservative base something to cheer about.

Despite the conventional wisdom that this election is the Democrats’ to lose, I still think they will do just that. Even leaving aside the issue of entrenched racism, Americans tend to like Republican presidents and Democratic congresses and it has occurred to me watching the tightening of the race that the electorate is simultaneously looking for reasons not to vote for Obama as they hunt for reasons not to reject McCain. Watch the polls in the two weeks after the Republican convention. If Obama’s lead again falls within a few percentage points of McCain’s — or falls below — it will be a good early indication of a Republican victory. But even an Obama loss might be seen as a victory for a country that only about 40 years ago was setting dogs on black protesters. Change comes slowly, but it comes eventually.

UPDATE 9/4: I thought it might take a couple of weeks, but according to a new [CBS News Poll] Obama’s modest bump from the Democratic Convention has already evaporated.

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