Posted by: George | December 31, 2016

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 2

    Admit, for so is the fact, that this plan is only recommended, not imposed, yet let it be remembered that it is neither recommended to blind approbation, nor to blind reprobation; but to that sedate and candid consideration which the magnitude and importance of the subject demand, and which it certainly ought to receive.

John Jay, Federalist No. 2

John Jay frames the need for a new constitution by writing about war and peace. From the first conception of an independent American nation, as the Articles of Confederation were drafted, the colonies were at war and the new citizens’ “habitations were in flames.” As we look back, we can easily fail to understand a fundamental part of our history: This first formation of a new nation was an act of imagination. Our forefathers had to imagine that they would win independence, and they had to imagine what kind of new government might bring security and prosperity to a new nation in the new world. They had the principles of the Enlightenment to guide them, but they did not have a history specific to the task. And they were imagining this new reality, which we often take for granted, in a time of war. “It is not to be wondered at,” Jay writes, “that a government instituted in times so inauspicious, should on experiment be found greatly deficient and inadequate to the purpose it was intended to answer.”

The first imagining of a new kind of government, the first experiment, as conceived during war, failed. And so a second act of imaging was needed. Jay writes of the Constitutional Convention of 1787: “In the mild season of peace, with minds unoccupied by other subjects, they passed many months in cool, uninterrupted, and daily consultation; and finally, without having been awed by power, or influenced by any passions except love for their country, they presented and recommended to the people the plan produced by their joint and very unanimous councils.”

Jay’s point is that now, in 1787, in a time of peace and with the knowledge of one failed experiment, the forefathers were able to conceive of a better constitution, a new imagining and a new experiment. This, he says, is an imagining that is more likely to succeed, if ratified.

In No. 2, Jay’s words are also a call to citizenship. When he says that the recommendation of a new constitution is not a recommendation to “blind approbation” or “blind reprobation,” he is asking his fellow citizens to bring “patriotism, virtue and wisdom” to the public debate over whether or not the new constitution should be ratified. He is calling for nothing short of a new kind of citizen. The new experiment, as Whitman later wrote in Democratic Vistas, cannot be realized without a new kind of person. This new person, this new citizen, must be educated and informed. Otherwise, public discourse, though imagined, cannot be realized.

During the 2016 election, I saw this exchange between a Trump supporter and a reporter:

Trump Supporter: Trump is going to build a wall, and he’s going to make them pay for it.

Reporter: Who is going to pay for the wall?

Trump Supporter: China.

You can see a line of thought in this short exchange, if we add a missing step—or misstep—in the logical sequence. (Is “logical” the wrong adjective here? Maybe.) Here’s the full sequence, with the missing link in italics: Trump is going to build a wall. They are going to pay for it. China built the Great Wall of China. Therefore, China must be the country that will pay for the Great Wall of America, which will be capped off with a neon TRUMP. Okay, I added the part about the Trump sign, but you get the idea.

In another interview, a different Trump supporter said he was angry at Obama because he wasn’t in his office during the 9/11 attack. By “office,” he clearly meant the Oval Office. Obama couldn’t be there because 9/11 happened in 2001, and he wasn’t president yet. George W. Bush was president, and Bush wasn’t in the Oval Office, either. He was reading some children’s book about a goat to a second grade class in Florida. I’m sure it was a lovely book about a lovely goat and the little kids were probably lovely, too. I’m also sure that Bush did less damage when he was out of the Oval Office. So, I don’t blame Bush at all—for that.

It is easy to smirk at these grotesquely ill-informed comments by citizens of our country in the twenty-first century, both of whom, I assume, voted on November 8, 2016. So, let us smirk, but just for a moment. Then, let us reflect.

Before the election, I was watching about three hours a day of political news on television and reading additional stories about politics and political issues online. Since the election, I have been watching less than an hour of news a day. If this keeps up, I predict that I will meet these Trump supports at some point. In time, I will be as ill informed. We will become brothers in our country’s experiment in government. Grotesquely so.

I am sure that John Jay would tell me to snap out of it, to buck up and get back in the game. Part of the force of Jay’s frame of war and peace in No. 2 might be lost on a contemporary audience. He was writing in “the mild season of peace” to citizens who lived daily with memories of a brutal war for independence. With even the mention of war, Jay is laying bare these memories. Part of his call for his fellow citizens to be patriotic, virtuous, and wise includes this: People died for your right to be an informed citizen, so do not come to this debate blind.

More have died since. I am going to have to move past the pain and discomfort I feel as I watch the news or even conceive of hearing, over and over, the phrase President Trump.

Consult for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

Posted by: George | December 26, 2016

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 1

After an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less that the existence of the Union, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world.

            Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 1

 Hamilton begins the Federalist Papers with a statement about American exceptionalism and the fragility of its experiment in government. A little over a decade old, the new government, one of “the most interesting in the world,” is clearly not working. The union, he writes, may not survive.

 Eugene O’Neill once said that there is not present or future, there is only past. His plays are filled with characters who are haunted by demons of their own creation, so it makes sense that he saw only the past. That’s not how we experience our institutions. We experience them in the present and only the present, as if they always existed, as if they were God created, as if they will survive and sustain us until the end of days.

 If we read history, we know better. The Revolutionary War could have easily collapsed, the South could have won the Civil War, and the Japanese could have prevailed in World War II. When Hamilton wrote Federalist No. 1, he did not know that the constitution would be adopted and that the government it established would exist for over two centuries. At stake, Hamilton believed, was not just the future of his country but the broader issue of whether or not people could establish “good government from reflection and choice.” If this experiment failed, it would contribute to “the general misfortune of mankind.”

 If we are unable to establish “good government,” Hamilton believed, the failure will lie with our pettiness, our failure to consider “the public good.” He expected a “torrent of angry and malignant passions” to “be let loose,” that some will attempt “to increase their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.” Rather than fight invectives with invectives, Hamilton asks us to embrace the conflict as “a lesson in moderation.” Part of the lesson is accepting, however we might be inclined to react, that the opposition may have “upright intentions” and focusing on “the evidence of truth.”

 It is the tone of No. 1 that is most interesting. I am not going to be nostalgic here for a time past. Eighteenth-century American politics were not always civil. Jefferson and Adams could be particularly nasty, even to the point of doing something like fake news about each other. And we can find nastiness in the Antifederalists, a less cohesive group that opposed adoption of the new constitution. In Brutus IX (January 17, 1788), one of the Antifederalist essays, the author argues against granting the federal government the right to establish a standing army and, more specifically, as generally assumed, against Hamilton in Federalist No. 1. Brutus writes:

From the positive, and dogmatic manner, in which this author delivers his opinions, and answers objections made to his sentiments, one would conclude, that he was some pedantic pedagogue who had been accustomed to deliver his dogmas to his pupils, who always placed implicit faith in what he delivered.

Now, you might say this is pretty nasty stuff, even if not as nasty as some of the attacks during our recent election. Brutus does not say anything about the size of  Hamilton’s hands. And, despite the ad hominem attack, Brutus writes: “I shall now proceed to examine the arguments they advance in support of their opinions.” Despite calling Hamilton a “pedantic pedagogue,” Brutus engages in a high level of argument.

Nastiness is not the most fundamental problem we have right now. It’s the lack of substance, the tendency to dismiss the opposition with adjectives.

 We certainly have journalist and essayist who are writing at a high level, who are building arguments. My concern is that the good is often lost in the ocean of the bad. Has our discourse been democratized or diluted? When the Federalist and the Antifederalist debated, we had a small number of men (yes, all white men) publishing substantial essays in a small number of newspapers. It was easier to raise the level of political discourse. Now, it seems like we are trying to lower the sea level with a teacup.

 But we should try. We should take Hamilton’s advice and learn moderation.


Consult for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

Posted by: George | December 22, 2016

Lessons from The Federalist Papers

Last Saturday, December 17, I was sitting with some of my colleagues in the robing room before commencement. We were having coffee and catching up before we had to slide into academic regalia, march in the basketball arena, and zone out for over two hours.

 One of my colleagues asked, “What are you going to do over the break?”

 “I’m going to reread The Federalist Papers,” I replied.


 “So I can argue against Trump supporters.”

 At this point, another colleague, a historian, said, “Trump supporters are not Federalists!”

 My reply was, “I don’t know what they are, but I want to understand the constitution better.”

 My first comment about arguing with Trump supporters was a smartass thing to say. The last comment about wanting to understand our constitution better was more accurate and measured, more what I hope to accomplish.

 I do not assume that I understand “Trump supporters,” but I am pretty sure they are a mixed group, far more diverse than I tend to acknowledge. There might be a zeitgeist that drove the election of Trump, but a zeitgeist, as it captures the spirit of an age, must necessarily pull in a diverse group. If we broaden the group to include people who voted for Trump, or maybe voted against Clinton, but were not too happy about having to make that choice, the group becomes even more diverse.

 But, here we are, awaiting a new president. This is usually a time of optimism, but it can also be a time, even when we have elected a more traditional president, of fear and anxiety. As we await inauguration day, most citizens typically feel this entire complex of emotions. This year, I suspect the emotions are split into diverse camps. We are now a nation as divided as when The Federalist Papers argued for a particular path—the formation of a stronger union.

 If I could find “Trump supporters,” or a sample of them, sitting around in a coffee shop someplace, I don’t think I would want to argue with them. What I would like to do is contribute to creating a dialog. So, I want to reread The Federalist Papers to educate myself. In future posts, I will share what I learn.

 I should begin with some context and caveats. I am a rhetorician and a teacher of rhetoric. I am not a historian or a political scientist. I am also, primarily on this blog, a writer of personal essays. I am not going to pretend to offer an expert interpretation of The Federalist Papers. Rather, I am going to read to see what I can learn about the origins of our government and our national values. At this point, I don’t know what I will write about, but I suspect this will be a personal series of essays about what surprised me or caught my interest. What I write will likely be more personal reflection than scholarship.

 If you are unfamiliar with The Federalist Papers, here are a few facts to get us started. To argue for the adoption of our constitution, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison wrote a series of essays, seventy-seven of them, under the pseudonym Publius, which were published in The Independent Journal from October 1787 to August 1788. In 1788, a collection with eight additional essays was published as The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution, As Agreed upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787. The collection was not known as The Federalist Papers until the twentieth-century. The essays are generally valued for the insight they provide into the intentions of our Founding Fathers. Some of the essays form an important part of the curriculum for courses in constitutional law.

Let’s see what we can learn.


Posted by: George | December 16, 2016

Trump and the Constitution

On Morning Joe today, there was a long discussion about the press saying that Trump was a threat to our constitution. Joe Scarborough argued that the press was over-reacting. Our institutions will survive.

A brief response. The purpose of the Electoral College was to prevent a populous movement from electing a president that played to their worst fears. That worked pretty well. Just saying.

Posted by: George | December 13, 2016

Aftermath of the Election

It is hard to sort out feelings. It is hard to know what to think.

In the days after the election I have heard troubling stories. The stories are in the news and they are told by your friends. I am only going to repeat two. A first-grader told her teacher, “I am afraid to be a girl.” A Hispanic high-schooler was told, as he walked into his school, “You might as well go home. You are going to be deported soon.” I’m sure you have heard similar stories.

I am worried about how we will treat each other, but I am also worried about other things.

Oddly, for the first time in my life, I find myself worrying as if I were both a Democrat and Republican. I am worried about what a Trump Supreme Court will do to Roe v. Wade. I am also worried about how Trump’s proposed tax cuts and spending plans will balloon the deficit.

If that’s not enough, I am also worried about the future of democracy. This worry has been building for a while.

I am worried about truthiness. From Lee Atwater and Carl Rove, we have learned that truth is created through repetition, not evidence or dialogue. Keep saying it, and the citizens will, at some point, start believing it.

I am worried about fake news and how most of our fellow citizens, including Trump’s appointed National Security Advisor, can’t seem to tell the difference between fake news and real news.

I am worried about how Big Data collected from Facebook and your Fitbit watch (just two examples, alas) creates what Sue Halpern recently called “another you” (New York Review of Books, 22 December 2016). Halpern points out that this data is often wrong, but in many ways the Big Data you is more real than the real you.

I am worried about how analytics have created a new class of super voters, maybe those living in a single county of a single state, who can swing a national election. This may have always been reality, but knowing who these voters are so that they can be targeted and privileged does change reality.

Because of the expansion of mass media and social media, we have never lived in a culture where information is more abundant and more dangerous. The future that, in 1935, Walter Benjamin predicted—the time when there will be more information and less knowledge—is here.

As I suggested in my last post, we might be living alternative history. Or we might find ourselves on the pages of a dystopian novel. More likely, we might be entering a reality where our future president has enough successes that everything seems more or less okay—on the surface—while we move further from the democracy our forefathers imagined.

These are uncertain times.

I am only certain about two things. Our institutions will be tested. Our character will be tested.

Posted by: George | November 11, 2016

Alternative History


On election day, in the morning, I wrote a blog post. I assumed, as many did, that Clinton would be elected the country’s first woman president. Then, the results started coming in. Just yesterday, I told a friend about this, how I had written a blog post that would never be read, and he suggested that I post it anyway. You can view it as a kind of alternative history. Or, it might be that we are now beginning to live alternative history, something along the lines of MacKinley Kantor’s If the South Had Won the Civil War or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. The post argued that Walt Whitman had predicted the outcome of this election. Maybe the post still has some relevance. Even in the darkest times, Whitman was optimistic about this American experiment.

 Walt Whitman Predicted It

In Democratic Vistas (the work that provided the title for this blog), first published in 1870, Walt Whitman claimed American had not yet achieved democracy. The first time I read this, I was shocked. I am sure that most of his contemporaries were shocked, as well.

As I once believe, as most Americans believe, we had a democracy since about 1776, or shortly after that, but Whitman said no, even a hundred years later, we have not yet embraced democracy.

We had not yet developed, he explained, the kind of American who could support a democracy, and we had not yet extended suffrage. We needed to develop the kind of men and women who could become active citizens.

Democratic Vistas is an essay that argues for diversity, a “large variety of character.” Whitman felt that human nature needed to expand itself in “numberless and even conflicting directions,” which included developing women, through education and literature, so that they could become citizens.

In one of my favorite sections of the essay, Whitman presents portraits of American women, including his mother, “a resplendent person,” to break down stereotypes, the mold of women we had inherited from the old world. He wanted to say that women, American women, could stand on par with men, American men. Then, he wrote:

The forgoing portraits, I admit, are frightening out of line from these imported models of womanly personality—the stock feminine characters of the current novelists, or of the foreign court poems (Ophelias, Enids, princesses, or ladies of one thing or another), which fill the envying dreams of so many poor girls, and are accepted by our men, too, as supreme ideals of feminine excellence to be sought after. But I present mine just for a change.

Then, there are mutterings (we will not now stop to heed them here, but they must be heeded), of something more revolutionary. The day is coming when the deep questions of women’s entrance amid the arenas of practical life, politics, the suffrage, etc., will not only be argued all around us, but may be put to decision, and real experiment.

The decision is here. The experiment has been run. Later, in the same essay, Whitman announced “a native expression-spirit” would emerge with a “Religious Democracy sternly taking command, dissolving the old, sloughing off surfaces, and from its own interior and vital principles, reconstructing, democratizing society.”

I don’t know that Whitman, if he were still with us, would say that we have achieved the ideal of democracy with the election of the first African-American president and now the first woman president. He might still lament the ways that some are limiting democracy by suppressing votes, but I think he would be saying, “This is what I was announcing. This is what I hoped would happen. We are closer now to democracy that we were yesterday.”

I don’t know that Whitman, if he were still with us, would say that we have achieved the ideal of democracy with the election of the first African-American president and now the first woman president. He might still lament the ways that some are limiting democracy by suppressing votes, but I think he would be saying, “This is what I was announcing. This is what I hoped would happen. We are closer now to democracy that we were yesterday.”

Posted by: George | November 8, 2016

Voting and Immigrants and My Grandfather

Henry Jensen, my grandfather, was not born at Cook County Hospital in Chicago.

This needs a little explanation. He was born in Denmark. In 1884, Peter Jensen, his father, my great-grandfather, packed up the family and crossed the Atlantic to the United States. Peter became a citizen in 1890, but for some reason Henry never went through the paperwork. He was a cowboy and a pioneer. Guess he didn’t have the time to get to town much.

But he did vote, which scared the hell out of Musa, his wife, my grandmother. So, Musa, a smart woman, told him to put his place of birth down as Cook County Hospital, Chicago, Illinois.

Why? She knew there was a big fire in Chicago in 1871, which would have probably destroyed the record of my grandfather’s birth, had he actually been born at Cook County Hospital.

When I lived in Chicago, from 1979 to 1983, I worked two blocked from Cook County Hospital. Whenever Cook County came up in conversation, I would always tell people, with pride, that my grandfather was not born at Cook County.

“Huh?” they would respond. Then, I would tell them the story about my grandfather voting.

If I told this story to Donald Trump, he would probably say, “See, I am right. These damn immigrants are voting illegally. Have been for generations.”

My grandfather paid his taxes. He loved this country. He voted. I don’t think he ever threw an election one way or another. I am okay with all this.

However, here is proof that my great-grandfather voted legally. So, Donald, we aren’t all illegals.


Posted by: George | October 24, 2016


My one-sentence review of Karl Ove Kanausgaard’s My Struggle, which is a novel published in six volumes with something like 3,600 pages:

It’s like reality television for hipsters who like to read.

[In case you are wondering, I am in volume 2, page 101, feeling a little despair about my stamina to finish it. I need some hipster mojo.]

Posted by: George | October 12, 2016

The 2016 Presidential Election as Satire

It is hard to figure out how to keep from being clinically depressed about the 2016 presidential election. I don’t mean fashionably depressed. I mean clinically depressed.

Trump, the Republican nominee, brags about sexual assault and then defends himself by parading four women who have allegedly been sexually harassed by Bill Clinton into a press conference, minutes before the second debate. So, women who might have been sexually exploited by Bill Clinton turn to Donald Trump as their hero and protector. Pour me a scotch, neat.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, cannot emerge from email scandals. Her server, wiki-leaks, whatever. She apologizes, she explains, she diverts, and she cannot wash off the stink. One of her diversions is to be morally outraged about Trump disrespecting women, but then there is Bill. Make it a Bourbon on this one.

Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee, would be an option, if he knew what Aleppo is, or if he could name one leader of a foreign country. Stab me in the eye with needles.

Jill Stein, the Green Party nominee, would be an option, if you are an anti-vaxer and concerned about radiation from Wi-Fi. Just shoot me, please.

So, wherever you start on the political spectrum, whichever way you go, you are probably going to want to vote and then take a long shower. That’s a healthy response. If you are excited about any of these candidates, you might want to seek therapy.

So, is there a way we can get through this?

Maybe, we need to start thinking about this election as an extended and brilliant work of satire. Who wrote this satire? Don’t know. Maybe it is intelligent design. But, I would argue it’s there. If you look for it, you will see satire.

Satire pushes the boundaries. It questions values that we generally consider to be beyond question. Satire is like taking all of our values—even ones we cherish—and throwing them all into an emotional freefall. All values are questioned. Some of them are discarded, if we view them as stale and outmoded. And some are reaffirmed.

It is this part that we usually fail to recognize—satire reaffirms values.

The values that have been most tested during this presidential election relate to the place of women in our society. Are women merely sexual objects? Is it okay that powerful men think that can get away with anything? Is it okay for Trump to degrade women and grab you know what? Is it okay for Bill Clinton to do whatever he did?

During this presidential election, the value of women has been questioned. And, the value of women has also, I believe, been reaffirmed, at least by most Americans. Most of us are outraged by how Trump talks about women. Most of us are at least disappointed in Bill. Most of us are disgusted and outraged. Most of us have said that women should be respected. This is the one thing that might be a positive outcome of this election.

Posted by: George | October 8, 2016

Advice for People Close to Trump

I am going to offer some advice for people close to Trump. I don’t mean just people who are emotionally close to Trump, as in family and friends, though being emotionally close to Trump is hard to imagine. I mean more people physically close to Trump, as in people who are in the proximity of Trump and may be in danger of one kind or another.

 Mike Pence: I hate to tell you this, but there are all of these signs across the country that say Trump Pence, like it is the first and last name of one guy. There are way too many of these signs for you to collect by driving around in your pickup truck, even if you have some help from your friends. Now, it is true that Trump is in a larger font than Pence, but this is still really bad. Your only hope for a future in politics is to do something historic, like be the first Vice President nominee to say, “I no longer support the top of the ticket.”

 Reince Priebus: I think it is time to start focusing on candidates down ticket. Actually, you should have been doing this a few months ago, but better late than never.

 Kellyanne Conway: Don’t be alone with this guy. You might also want to start carrying some mace. I would advise that you carry the strong stuff. Go to a backpacking store and ask for Bear Repellant.

Steven Bannon: Enjoy yourself. You have finally found that good buddy you’ve been looking for since you were about twelve years old and the normal guys in your school wouldn’t hang out with you because they thought you were a disgusting jerk.

 Don King: Time to get that haircut and go into hiding.

 Sarah Palin: This might be your moment to shine. I know Trump kind of dumped you after you gave that incoherent endorsement speech, but he might be reaching out (I mean that in a phone call way, not a groping way).

 Ivanka Trump: I know he’s your father, but don’t let this guy be alone with your kids.

 Trump Boys (Eric and Don, Jr.): In case you are looking at your father and thinking something like, “Well, that’s just the way guys talk when they are hanging out,” it’s not. You can’t find another father, but you can find another role model.

 Chris Christie: You were pretty good at saying you didn’t know anything about that bridge thing. Maybe you could say, “I don’t know Donald Trump. I never supported him.” Keep saying it with that Jersey swagger thing you do so well. Everything will be okay.

 Scott Baio: I know your career has not been going that great. Sorry about that. And, hate to say this, it’s not going to pick up anytime soon.

 Ben Carson: I would suggest prayer, but I have to say I am not sure what you should pray for. Just start praying. You’ll figure it out.

 Ted Cruz: You’re in good shape. That non-endorsement thing at the Republican National Convention—brilliant. Just hunker down and let everything around you explode. People will soon be looking to you as representing the moral high ground of the Republican party. Hard to imagine, I know.

Rudy Giuliani: I know you are thinking something like, “I thought I was smarter than this.” You’re not.

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