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Playing the Jefferson Card

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David Brooks professes to know the deep undercurrents of American life, and in his latest column for the New York Times he tries to explain why Jimmy Carter is wrong to say that the rhetorical attacks on Barack Obama are motivated by race:

My impression is that race is largely beside the point. There are other, equally important strains in American history that are far more germane to the current conflicts. For example, for generations schoolchildren studied the long debate between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians. Hamiltonians stood for urbanism, industrialism and federal power. Jeffersonians were suspicious of urban elites and financial concentration and believed in small-town virtues and limited government. Jefferson advocated ‘a wise and frugal government’ that will keep people from hurting each other, but will otherwise leave them free and ‘shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned’.

How much more pretentious and otherworldly can you get? Must stupidity and aggression always be given their historical due and moral weight? And must they be interpreted through the words of Thomas Jefferson? Moreover, Brooks seems to be saying that it’s fine to be stupid and aggressive as long as you are American, because it fits into a tradition leading all the way back to the beginning of time.

Comments on “Playing the Jefferson Card”

  1. gringo_gus says:

    I would, actually, interpret what is happening to Obama as in the true Jeffersonian tradition – the tradition of saying one thing about liberty, equality, et al, as universals, while acting in completely the opposite way when it comes to black people.

    Hence, Ellis (1997, p. 167) describes the “blazing forges and sweating black boys arranged along an assembly line of hammers and anvils…” in the nail factory Jefferson established on his slave-labor-run Monticello estate. No stand against industrialism, then; plenty of taking “from the mouth of labor…”.

    And, so too, the great American historical tradition, making up things about the past to pretend things that happen now are not what they are.

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