ESSAYS, ARTICLES, & REVIEWS
Acknowledgement: Joseph P. Ellis, for writing His Excellency, George Washington, which finally explained to me partisan politics, well as giving me the concise biography of Washington I’ve always desired (Flexner both confused and bored me).
George Washington and the Continental Army stood there freezing at Valley Forge, no shoes on their feet, no food, no medical help for the hundreds of wounded and ill, thinking, “Why won’t the Continental Congress send us some goddamned money so we don’t die?”
Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, at the Continental Congress, sessions were stalled. Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was speaking out for a for a strong, solid, federal government, one that included all thirteen colonies, that stood strongly behind the move for independence from Britain. These folks had termed themselves “Federalists.” Their opponents had termed themselves “Republicans.” The Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, both slave-owning Virginians (just like George Washington), severely contended that the rights of the individual states superseded the rights of the “United States,” which did not yet exist, and if that wasn’t taken into consideration, they would intentionally obstruct Congress so that nothing occurred, which is indeed what they did, and just as they predicted, nothing occurred. No money for food, shoes, clothes, munitions, nuthin. Washington and his valiant men were left out in the cold and fucked. And yet they prevailed over the mightiest army on earth, the Brits, why? Cuz Americans are the toughest motherfuckers on earth, that’s why.
And guess what? The entire economy of Virginia was based on bullshit: tobacco, cotton, and slave labor. Both tobacco and cotton, of little use in America, were shipped to England where they were brokered to be sold to the world. Sadly, even the best British brokers failed to pay on time, if at all, thus making the Virginia agricultural economy unprofitable. Slaves, due to having to be supported, including their families, were unprofitable from the beginning. Free men worked their hours a day, got their pay, then went home and supported their own families their own ways.
Perhaps the very first Virginia plantation owner to understand this conundrum was George Washington. Washington, who had grown up poor and had neither owned plantations, nor slaves, joined the military early, then rose quickly up to the command of the Virginia Regiment, married the wealthiest widow in Virginia, Martha Custis, and suddenly found himself the owner of the most enormous plantation in Virginia, Mount Vernon, stretching for miles in every direction, which included over three hundred slaves, between the ages of just-born and eighty, all depending on him, and the crop they were growing was tobacco. Right from the outset, Washington made a decision to never break up a slave family. And since all of the slaves intermarried, they were all one big, happy family that could never be broken up. Washington also realized, slowly, that tobacco was a bad crop since he couldn’t sell it in America, but had to have a British broker, who often didn’t pay him, or at least, not on time. So he switched to wheat, which was needed here in America, and could be sold at home without a broker between he and his money.
After the Revolutionary War, before there was a president, nothing got done. The Federalists and the Republicans couldn’t agree on anything. The only man above the fray was Ben Franklin, and he went and died. So everybody turned to Washington and demanded that he become the leader (they didn’t know what to call the position as yet, so they started with His Excellency). Washington, having just fought, and miraculously won, the Revolutionary War, really and truly didn’t want the position. He wanted, in his own words, “to sit under his fig trees,” but alas, the brand-new United States of America, would not have it. We needed a leader and everyone agreed that there was only one man for the job, George Washington. Seeing his duty yet again, he reluctantly took the job. They termed him “President” and his second-in-command, John Adams, was the “Vice-President.” The Secretary of State was one Thomas Jefferson, and the Secretary of the Treasury was one James Madison, both Virginia plantation and slave-owners, both still growing tobacco (and using British brokers, and both about to go bankrupt).
Immediately, Jefferson and Madison turned on their master. The interests of Virginia, in their strongly-felt opinions, were more important than the interests of the country. Thus began “States-Rights.” Washington and Adams (along with the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton) knew that this was horseshit from the word go. Without a strong federal government nothing could be accomplished, and Jefferson and Madison made sure that if they didn’t get what they wanted, meaning extra consideration for Virginia, they would obstruct Congress so that nothing got done.
And that’s where we still are today, 225 years later. It’s now called “partisan politics” (and was termed that pretty early on), and the “obstructionists” remain the Republicans. At the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, Republican Congressman, Mitch McConnell, met with all of the Republican congress people in the Library of Congress and told them, out loud, that they’re job was nothing more than to “obstruct all Democratic legislation,” and indeed, that’s what they’ve done, heartily. And so nothing gets done. Congress has the lowest popularity rating ever (9%). And when Mr. Obama uses his executive authority and bypasses Congress to actually get something done, the Republicans have now decided to personally sue him.
So that’s how partisan politics began—Virginians attempting to prop up a failed, agricultural, slave-run economy at the expense of the country-at-large.
Anyway, having only tangentially to do with that, my 84-year-old dad manages to keep going further and further to the right every single day, except that he himself only makes half-sense these days, so the horseshit he sits and watches all day long on Fox News becomes even more scrambled in his head than it already is, which is saying something. I had lunch with him the other day and after our perfunctory chit-chat about the family, we got down and dirty and talked politics as we always do.
“Hey, what about those Honduran kids stuck at the border? It’s a real shame,” said I.
“What’dya mean?” asked my dad. “What’s so shameful? They should send ‘em back.”
“To the Honduras?” I said. “They’ll be killed if they’re sent back.”
“Yeah?” said my sweet dad, “Fuck ‘em.”
“But,” said I, “they’re just kids. Why shouldn’t we just let them in? Show them some kindness.”
“We haven’t got room.”
I looked at him in astonishment. “Have you ever driven from Chicago to Denver?” (He hasn’t). “There’s nothing but room. It’s empty for a thousand miles, except Des Moines and Lincoln, Nebraska, which is the capitol of Nebraska, by the way. Have you ever been to Montana, or North or South Dakota?” (He hasn’t). “There’s nothing there. The one thing we have plenty of in America is room.”
Although he didn’t agree with me, he didn’t disagree, either, so score one for me.
“The real issue,” said my dad, “is that these kids will screw up our cultural identity.”
“Pardon me?” said I.
“Our cultural identity. We Americans have a cultural identity and these kids, wherever-the-hell they’re from, will screw it up.”
“Dad,” I plead, “we’re a melting pot. We have no ‘cultural identity’.”
“Bullshit! We’re Americans.”
“But Americans,” I explained, “are a bit of everything: pilgrims, Jews, blacks, Irish, Swedes, Norwegians, Germans, French, British, Eastern Europeans, Russians, Asians, on and on.”
“Fuck these kids,” said dad. “Send ‘em back.”
“Why can’t we just give them refugee status?”
“They don’t deserve it. They’re illegal immigrants.”
At that point I was in a state of high befuddlement. “Dad, if they go back they’ll be killed. That makes them refugees, not illegal immigrants. What about the Jews after World War II?” (Were Jewish).
“That’s different,” said dad, “We’d just experienced the holocaust.”
“But it was over.”
“The Jews were no longer being threatened with extermination. They weren’t being threatened at all, except by homelessness, poverty, and anti-Semitism, which, admittedly, is a lot, but not like what the drug cartels in the Honduras are threatening these kids with. But when World War II ended, Harry Truman, bless his heart, opened his arms to the Jews, and any other refugees there were. Remember, you were there.”
“The Jews are special.”
“We just are.”
“And are we part of America’s ‘cultural identity’?”
“But these kids aren’t, and never could be?”
“No, they’re Hondurans.”
And so, Fox News, which makes no goddamned sense to start with, ends up making even less sense once it’s digested and regurgitated by my dear old dad.
Which brings me, naturally, to going to the grocery store. I hate most people. They’re stupid, inattentive, and severely bad drivers. Most of them are out to kill me with their automobiles, and cell phones have made it a lot worse (we stupidly don’t have a “hands-free” law in Michigan). I spend most of my time in the car avoiding other people trying to kill me as they inattentively pull out of side streets right in front of me, insanely swerving from lane to lane yakking on their phones or texting, then blindly backing out of their driveways or parking places without the slightest care in the world.
I don’t drive much. I put 6,000 miles on my car in two-and-a-half years. My big jaunts are to the Kroger’s Grocery Store, two miles away. My medium jaunts are to the Target less than one mile away. My daily jaunts are to the liquor store six block away. That’s about it. I have nearly been killed in all three of these parking lots many, many times, up to and including yesterday at Kroger’s. I was innocently exiting the store pushing my shopping cart across the pedestrian crossing—where I’ve nearly been run down a hundred of times—and directly in front of me was both a big, red SUV driven by a middle-aged white woman with a half-dozen kids, coming toward me in the oncoming lane, as well as a blue SUV driven by a middle-aged white woman blindly backing out of a parking place while dialing her phone and coming straight at the red SUV. The woman in the red SUV, to avoid being hit by the blue SUV, swerved directly at me pushing my cart, now in complete horror like I had just seen my dead grandmother go floating by. When the red SUV was perhaps five inches from creaming me, and the woman still hadn’t noticed me because she was looking at the still-backing up blue SUV, I screamed as loud as I possibly could (since her windows were closed), “STOP YOUR FUCKING CAR!!!!!,” which, thankfully, she did. She rolled down her window and said to me, anything but apologetic, “That woman almost backed into me.” I said, “Yes. I saw it. I had front-row seats.” And then she drove way.