Thomas Jefferson Sites, Part 1: Washington, D.C., First Day

First day, Sunday April 19th:

I get a late start on my first day. But that’s okay: I’ve long since made it my policy to get my rest at the beginning of a trip because three things happen when I’m sleep-deprived: 1) I’m cranky and don’t enjoy myself fully 2) It’s much harder to take in everything and remember it, and 3) I lose my sense of direction and ability to read maps. Since I need to have my good spirits and my thinking, remembering, and map-reading capabilities intact for the purposes of this trip, I sleep in. I get a late start on my first day. But that’s okay: I’ve long since made it my policy to get my rest at the beginning of a trip because three things happen when I’m sleep-deprived: 1) I’m cranky and don’t enjoy myself fully 2) It’s much harder to take in everything and remember it, and 3) I lose my sense of direction and ability to read maps. Since I need to have my good spirits and my thinking, remembering, and map-reading capabilities intact for the purposes of this trip, I sleep in.

When I finally get a move on, I head over to the Mall, and start with:

– The Jefferson Memorial 
It’s neoclassical in design, inspired by the ancient Greek and Roman architecture that Jefferson loved. It’s also tall, well-appointed, classy, and full of memorable quotes… like the man himself. He would also appreciate its open-air design, its setting among trees and on the water: he was quite the outdoorsman, as studious and writerly as he was. And he would love to see the crowds that visit the site continuously, people from all walks of life, admiring the building and the grounds, resting on the steps, discussing the thoughts expressed on the walls.

Jefferson would probably have protested the idea of setting up such a grand monument to himself, something so close to a shrine or a temple; he described himself as a modest man. But it’s also clear, despite his protestations to the contrary, that he enjoyed being admired, that he sought love and approval from others. I think he’d look on this monument with secret pride and gratification, and would praise its hospitable openness to the public, as available to them as he made himself and the White House during the years of his presidency, and its edification to the people’s sense of beauty and the intellect.

I visit the museum beneath the memorial, which gives an overview of his life, times, and ideas. Jefferson was born at Shadwell in Albemarle County, Virginia in 1743, his father a successful planter, his mother from a well-connected, wealthy family. Jefferson was educated at home by tutors and at boarding schools as a youth, and studied law at William and Mary College. He entered public life early, elected to Virginia’s House of Burgesses at age 25. His tenure as a public servant lasted over 40 years, from congressman to minister to France to Secretary of State to President. All the while, he was a farmer, amateur scientist, inventor, architect, writer, philosopher, and whatever else captured his imagination, more details of which will come up in later posts.

As I leave Jefferson’s memorial, I waver in deciding where to go next: do I abandon the Mall and go immediately in search of other sites associated with Jefferson’s life, or do I continue on my way? It’s really a beautiful day, a bit windy, perhaps, but it’s fairly warm and there’s still some cherry blossoms left on the trees and wildflowers scattered all around the Mall’s park grounds.

I decide do something a little different this time: I usually stick to writing about the sites more or less directly related to the people I’m writing about, be it sites they visited themselves or sites created by others in their memory. But it occurs to me that I’m surrounded by memorials to people who, in addition to carrying out their own vision, carried out something of Jefferson’s vision as well. Nearly all American civic and moral leaders since Jefferson’s time reference his ideas when promoting their own, and cite his authority in carrying out their political missions. That’s to be expected: none of the members of our nation’s founding generation addressed so many matters of public concern, wrote or helped to write so many of its founding documents, explained the philosophy behind our form of government and our bill of rights so throughly, helped formulate the political structure of our government, and personally lived out our promises, our strengths, our contradictions, and our weaknesses as a nation as Thomas Jefferson, with the possible exception of James Madison and John Adams.

And no others were as widely influential, and who, while a de facto aristocrat, was more of a man of the people than Jefferson, with the possible exception of… (and who, by the way, laid the cornerstone of the Jefferson Memorial…)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

…FDR!A year or so ago, I first listened to an utterly fascinating episode of the Thomas Jefferson Hour discussing how Jeffersonian ideals may only be realizable by non-Jeffersonian means. It’s a radio show and podcast by Jefferson scholar and historian Clay Jenkinson (one of my all-time favorite podcasts, I’ve listened to every one that I could get ahold of at least once, often two or three times, except the ones about gardening, since I have no yard and hence, no garden). I recently went back and listened to again. It’s a discussion on Jefferson’s letters to Madison, and one in particular, after he had spent some years in Paris before the French Revolution. Jefferson discussed the dangerous political situation in France that resulted from a long history of a powerful and wealthy few systematically gobbling up most of the nation’s wealth and political power for themselves, leaving the majority of the population destitute. It was only a matter of time, Jefferson pointed out, before the people could take no more, and would inevitably rise up violently against their oppressors.

It’s always been the case that there will be some portion of a nation’s population that lack sufficient humanity, that are greedy and rapacious, and their thirst for power and hunger for wealth will drive them to spend their lives getting as much as they can, regardless of how many others they must harm to get it. Others might not be so purposeful in their predations, but their shortsighted efforts to increase their own personal gains without a though for the welfare of others, or a blind faith that the market will alwasy correct itself, often lead to the same harmful results. Because of this, Jefferson explains, it might very well be necessary for society to engage in some sort of redistribution of wealth.

Given Jefferson’s background as a passionate promoter of states’ rights and his fear of a too-powerful central government, this might come as a surprise to the modern reader, as it was to me when I first heard Jenkinson’s podcast on the subject, and read the letter for myself. But Jefferson was a believer in John Locke’s theory of natural rights, as Jenkinson explains, and in particular, in his theory of property rights. Our primary property right is the right of subsistence, to have enough to provide for one’s own needs, to preserve the health of one’s body and of mind. Our secondary property rights allows for the accumulation of wealth beyond that needed to maintain a happy and healthy existence, but we may only take advantage of secondary property rights if they do not infringe on the primary property rights of others.

This is the key point of property rights that many overlook today, especially those who select from Jefferson’s writings, especially his early writings before the evidence of the dysfunctional and unraveling French society tempered his views, to support their ideas about small government and absolute rights of property and contract. But Franklin Delano Roosevelt, like his progressive cousin Theodore Roosevelt, realized that the pursuit of personal gain without respect for to the primary property rights of others led to a society that systematically placed Jefferson’s ideals of a self-sufficient, educated, free citizenry out of the reach of too many people. Teddy Roosevelt, initially a more strait-laced conservative, had toured the slums of New York City, and had seen for himself how the ruthless, unrestrained pursuit of profit led to the impoverishment, sickness, and death of so many people, rendered easily exploitable by circumstance. In response, he changed his mind about the extent of rights of contract and made some reforms. Spurred on by the Great Depression, FDR carried forward the progressive vision of his cousin and overhauled the whole system, enlarging the government so it would work better for the ordinary citizen in the way Jefferson had hoped a small government would.

– Martin Luther King Jr Memorial

MLK was quite the wordsmith; besides revealing extraordinary personal bravery in the face of repeated and threatened imprisonment as well as death threats, he had a way, like Jefferson, of putting things.There are many of his memorable quotes engraved on the walls surrounding his memorial. One that’s not engraved on his memorial (but I think should be) is the one that links most directly to Jefferson and that stands out in both succinctness and explanatory power: his analogy of the promissory note from his great ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ of 1963.

At the time they were written and first put into action, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution increased the liberty of very few people. In severing themselves from Great Britain, the leaders of our new country mostly secured more rights for themselves and those like them: landowners, lawyers, merchants, and so on. The ordinary colonist lived more or less the same life just after the Constitution was ratified as before. Most free men could not vote since they were not property owners and/or were not fully literate, and no women or slaves at all could vote. Same for members of some religious minorities; this situation was one of the first political injustices to be reformed. Taxes went to a new set of leaders almost as far removed from the reality of most Americans as before. In other words, ‘taxation without representation’ was still the rule rather than the exception in the newly United States of America.

As MLK pointed out, the promissory note promising ‘liberty and justice for all’ remained unpaid: for black people, for other ethnic and racial minorities, for women, for working people. He revealed, in an eloquent and moving way (aided by his experience as a preacher), how the words of the Declaration of Independence rang hollow since ‘all …are created equal’ was not manifested in law, attitudes, and practice in the lives of far too many American people.

While he reviled and wrote and fought against slavery as a young lawyer and politician, giving up the fight after years of unsuccessful opposition to (and I add, hypocritically enjoying the benefits of) of what he called the ‘abominable crime’ of slavery, Jefferson also believed the races could not live together in peace and friendship. MLK dreamed otherwise.

 Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln, unlike Jefferson, was a man brought up in poverty, and had little formal education in his youth. Like Jefferson, he was largely self-motivated and self-taught in his advanced education, and like Jefferson, hated slavery as a young man and spoke passionately and eloquently against it, only to waffle on the issue in his later years somewhat for reasons of personal bias, and even more for political reasons. Fortunately, yet again unlike Jefferson, he came back around, and did what Jefferson had hoped and predicted future generations would do.
The violence of the Civil War was as horrific as were the centuries of slavery that proceeded it; while it’s debatable whether it could have been averted or that it was the inevitable outcome of the discrepancy between the practice of slavery, the political and moral theory informing our founding documents, and the individual human longing for freedom, Lincoln, like MLK, recognized the societal moral debt that remained unpaid, using the rhetoric of blood redemption in the words of his second inaugural address, immortalized on the right wall of his memorial: ‘…shall [the Civil War] continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-men’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

And as Jefferson pointed out in his letters referring to the bloody Revolution in France, it would be unrealistic to expect that the struggle for freedom against such a deeply entrenched, cruel, and oppressive institution would be pleasant or easy. Jefferson famously wrote ‘The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.’ I hope he’s wrong when it comes to the future, though he was not wrong about the revolutions of his own time and about the worsening effects of slavery on society. There’s an excellent book I often refer to, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (a phrase borrowed from Lincoln) which, as the book’s subtitle Why Violence Has Declined suggests, indicate that, among other things, the free(ish) market world economy, the scientific and human rights revolutions, and the advances in communications are making the world a much more peaceful place than it ever has been. Perhaps these advances will give many more of us the potential to become as informed, as cosmopolitan, and as courteous as Jefferson himself.

I had come to the end of my tour of the memorials.
Between visiting the MLK and Lincoln Memorials, I had swung around to the left to see if I could stop by what is now know as Theodore Roosevelt Island, known in Jefferson’s time as Analostan. He used to visit his friend John Mason, who had a farm and mansion there. The 66 connects it to the mainland, and there’s a footpath on the bridge.

It was a blustery walk, to say the least, and I discovered that footpath reaches across, but not down to, the island. I’ll return to visit another time. But looking back, I could plainly see TJ’s memorial between the trees.My Uncle Bob, who lives in nearby Fall’s Church, Virginia, picked me up to take me on a little driving tour and then to dinner. I’m fond of my Uncle Bob, tall, handsome (a common trait of the Cools’), courteous, old-fashioned in his sensibilities and speech, seemingly grave and imposing with his deep and slightly thick voice (I was a little scared of him as a child, funny to think of that now!), but with an enthusiasm that would rival any small child’s when it comes to seeing something beautiful or discussing a subject he loves. He has a good sense of humor.
On our way around the Mall, we passed by the corner of C and New Jersey Streets, where Conrad and McMunn’s boarding house was. Jefferson lived there for a while when he was Vice President, but the building no longer stands. I check it off my list. The rest of the evening is devoted to non-Jeffersonian-themed touring and dinner.

To be continued….

*Listen to the podcast edition here or on iTunes


Sources and Inspiration: 

Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Owl Books, 2004.

Jenkinson, Clay. The Thomas Jefferson Hour. Podcast.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. ‘I Have A Dream’ Speech, 1963.

Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. New York: Random House, 2012.

‘Timeline of Jefferson’s Life’. Website of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

‘Washington, D.C.: Sites Associated with Thomas Jefferson’. Wiki, Thomas Jefferson Foundation.,_D.C.

Traveling Philosophy Series, Thomas Jefferson Edition: Prologue

As I sit here in the airport terminal in Salt Lake City, waiting for one of my connecting flights to DC, I sleepily munch on French fries and watch the crowd go by. My ever-generous darling awoke with me at three thirty this morning to drive me to the airport, and though I’m almost too tired to think, I can’t sleep either, as is usually the case at the beginning of a trip (I can usually sleep on the way home).

So as I’m watching the crowd, I’ve got Thomas Jefferson in the back of my mind, as I’ve been immersing myself in biographies, lectures, discussions, and author’s talks about his life and thought over the last couple of weeks. On the first leg of my trip, I had just been re-reading the first chapters of Susan Jacoby’s marvelous Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, in which Jefferson’s Enlightenment philosophy, his Deism, and his efforts to enshrine a robust conception of human rights and separation of church and state in state and federal law play a large role.

A strong belief in the basic natural goodness and perfectibility of humankind underlie Jefferson’s view of human nature and his political philosophy. In the airport, I see those traits personified which would justify Jefferson’s faith in humanity if they were as universal as he hoped. I see cooperation, courtesy, patience, and friendliness abound: people chat freely with others they just met; others stand in line and in crowded aisles with forbearance, and courteously let others go ahead of them, or step around them with a smile, if they are burdened with children or slowed by age or disability; still others helpfully pick up a bag or a scarf dropped by a fellow passenger in a hurry to get their things so as not to delay others. I just saw a man give up the standby seat he had just won to the woman who had forfeited it, who was on the verge of tears because she arrived mere moments before her flight was due to take off.

I also see a wide diversity of race, culture, and creed represented in the crowd peacefully assembled here, cooperating seamlessly with one another, which the slaveowning-yet-abolitionist-yet-repatriationist Jefferson thought impossible (more on these contradictions in a later piece). He didn’t think, for one thing, that people of different races could live harmoniously in one place, not to mention his dim view of women’s ability to fully engage in public life and the professional world! I see an elderly woman murmur fervent prayers in a low voice to an image of a Hindu saint (I think) perched on the bag in her lap, with no-one protesting or even batting an eye; I see a black woman with a cross prominently displayed on her bosom accept instructions from the woman of apparent Middle Eastern descent at the podium, and then share pleasantries with her; I see a young white apparently Mormon man praising the sweet looks and winning personality of the child of Indian parents across the aisle, comparing her virtues to those of his own children at home; I sit next to two women, smelling of stale smoke, missing a few teeth, and wearing cheap clothes, happy, chatting, and smiling about the adventure they’re embarking on, without any show of feeling out of place next to the obviously much wealthier woman sitting next to them on the other side (and who, in turn, shows no sign of noticing or even caring about ‘rubbing shoulders’ with those of a different economic class). I see a young female pilot stride confidently down the aisle, a young boy gazing at her admiringly.

This airport, right now, in so many ways, is the America of Jefferson’s dreams, in some ways realizing his rather idealistic view of human nature, and in many more ways surpassing it. I wish he could see it right now, to relish this justification of his hopes for what his country could be, and to learn that human nature is capable of being even better than he thought possible. But when I think about all that’s going on in the world right now, I know we still have a long way to go. For now, I’m not going to dwell on that. I’m just going to enjoy this microcosm of human goodness I find myself in right now.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

On Jonathan Webber’s Discussion on Deception With Words: Honesty in Public Discourse Part II

I’ve been thinking quite a bit on the subject of lies, deception, and public trust since I wrote about some recent high-profile cases of deceivers in the media.

I recently gave Jonathan Webber’s podcast interview on Philosophy Bites ‘On Deception With Words’ a second and more attentive listen. I remembered that something he said struck me as not quite right. I agree with him on the importance of honesty in general, yet I take issue with his position on lying versus deceiving. In this discussion, as Webber defines the terms, lying refers to telling a brazen untruth, and deceiving refers to implying an untruth without specifically stating one.

When host Nigel Warburton asks Webber which of the two is worse, morally speaking, Webber answers (at about 5:15):

‘I think that lying is worse… well, more precisely, I think that we ought to have the attitude that lying is worse. So we ought to treat liars more harshly than we treat people when we catch them misleading us… I think the difference is that lying does more damage to your credibility than misleading does. The way we work as human beings, as a community of people, is that we exchange information all the time, that’s one important part of the way we work, and in order to do that, we need to be able to rely on each other as informants. So we need one another to be credible. I need to be able to believe what you say, and you need to be able to believe what I say.’

I disagree with him on this point for the same reason I think that, in comparing the lies and deceptions of Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh, Limbaugh is the one who systematically betrays the public trust in the worst way. It’s because he not only lies fairly often, blatantly telling falsehoods about facts of the matter and about the opinions of the people he disagrees with, but he also misleads by a bait-and-switch tactic of relying on his self-bestowed credentials as a truth-teller in one moment, and then at other moments falls on his credentials as an entertainer who misrepresent, exaggerates, and distorts for the purposes of entertainment or to make a wider point. He does this at will, without making a distinction at any given time which he’s doing. This not only reflects on his general credibility as a reliable truth-teller: it harms his audience more by making it that much more difficult to tell the lies from deceptions from truths. It creates a situation that his audience, which he invites to trust him, can’t tell when they’re being misled.

So to me, in general, making a moral distinction between lies (brazen untruths) and deceptions (implied untruths) is not very helpful, especially the attempt to say that one is generally more wrong than the other. For one thing, lies and deception are used for the same purpose: compare it to a claim that it’s more wrong to commit murder with a hammer than with an axe, and you’ll see where the problem lies. But even if Weber is right, and the most important moral factor is the credibility of the speaker, I don’t think he demonstrates that lying does, in fact, damages credibility more. As we see in my Limbaugh example, it seems that deception can and often does do more to damage credibility, because it gives the speaker a weaselly ‘way out’ or plausible deniability which allows him to evade any and all personal responsibility for causing the listener to believe something untrue.

More than damaging the credibility of the speaker, however, I think that deception can be worse in many cases because the harm done to the listener can be more egregious. For example, a blatant lie can more readily be identified and fact-checked by the speaker. A deception, however, is not always so easily fact-checked, and in fact, can’t always be identified as the conveyor of untruth that it is. That’s because, as Webber points out, deception is usually done through implicature, exploiting the linguistic tool of leading the hearer to believe the speaker means one thing when he says another. The very indirectness of the

I’m not the least bit Pollyanna-ish about lying. Like most people, and I would claim like most morally committed people, I think there are times when lies and deception are permissible, and times when dishonesty is the only right way to go. I would usually not tell the truth about the proverbial dress that makes the wearer’s butt look too big (though given the fashionableness of curvy posteriors now, this could be taken as a compliment!), and I would lie my head off to lead the proverbial Nazi stormtroopers away from the Jewish family hiding in the closet. That’s because communication, in these instances, is only a tool to accomplish valuable ends, in these cases easing the mind of the insecure dress-wearer, and saving lives from murderous thugs.

So here’s where we get to why I think Webber is mistaken about the relative wrongness of lies and deception: if language is only the means, and the end if its use is to convey truth to the listener, than it wouldn’t make much sense to say that lies and deception, as two means of conveying untruth. are generally morally distinct. It seems to me that the rightness or wrongness of what’s said is entirely contingent on the moral value of its purpose, and if a lie or a deception is wrong, we can judge how wrong it is based on how effectively it undermines the public trust, and how injurious it is to the hearer’s need to know the truth of the matter.

Sources and Inspiration: 

Webber, Jonathan. ‘On Deception With Words’. Philosophy Bites podcast interview March 01, 2015.

From Venus of Willendorf to Leonardo da Vinci: In Praise of Art That’sLess About Concept and More About Story and Craft

I love to make things, as anyone will tell you who’s known me very long. My two favorite kinds of things to create are written pieces, be they argumentative, explanatory, illustrative, narrative, and so on, and are usually essays; and artworks, now usually picture quilts, but for many years drawings, paintings, and occasionally sculptures. Though I’ve long loved the written word, my oldest creative love is art.

I’m also a populist by instinct, in the sense that I care a lot about sharing my life with many kinds of people, and relatively little about fitting in with or impressing a small, select group. When I’m in a scene that feels too cliquish, too elite, too cool, too exclusionary, too, well… ‘scene-y’, then I’m out. Not to say I don’t care about community: I do, deeply. But when it comes to anything I think is wonderful and lovable, the more widely I want to share it. That’s what I’m all about as a writer and as an artist.

And that’s why I’m just not that into conceptual art, on the whole. By conceptual art, I mean that which is created more with the intention of referring to or hinting at abstract concepts, and less for purpose of telling a story or of being a thing of beauty. The more conceptual a piece is, the more it leaves me cold, because to me, conceptual art is exclusionary in nature. This type of art is really only meaningful to, and therefore meant for, an exclusive circle, people who spend a lot of time in that sort of art culture, or in a moneyed elite, or in certain academic circles. (I value and respect academia, but to me, it fulfills a very different function than art does.) It’s made for people in a position to ‘get it’. Conceptual art speaks in jargon, in secret handshakes, in code, in insider-ese, in the language of moneyed leisure. All well and good for those who enjoy this sort of club atmosphere. But of art, I want more.

I want art that’s more like music, or poetry, or architecture, or myth: even if it’s originally meant only to communicate within a culture, it can and does communicate across time, space, culture, socioeconomic status, and language. To me, the more soul-stirring the art is, the more comprehensively it tells a story (in both senses of the word ‘comprehensive’). It’s that sort of universal human communication, like tears, laughs, sighs, or smiles, that makes art transcendent, that bridges those gaps between each other and between ourselves and all that exists, which we all ache to cross. 

I love folk art, and I love craftsmanship. They are the two sides of art that I think communicate most universally. 

By folk art, I mean that which is meant to communicate a story: of a person or persons, of an event, of a myth, of belief, of history. It can be crude or it can be finely wrought, but what makes it good is its ability to communicate to anyone, from anywhere or at any time, what’s going on in the mind and heart of the artist. 

By craftsmanship, I mean the art of creation which requires a high level of dexterity and skill, and which demonstrates the countless hours of practice and of mastery that demonstrates the artist’s deep love of the creative process itself. We all make things, so we are all able to recognize and appreciate, on some level, whatever level of care and ability that went into making the thing we see. And as makers, we invariably encounter the limits of our abilities, and in doing so, we realize how difficult it is transcend our own limits and make something well. When an artist accomplishes this superbly, we’re impressed, and delighted.

On the whole, I think the world of conceptual art is suffering too many of the ill effects of its own excesses. Craftsmanship is not valued nearly enough; indeed, I’ve heard artworks rich in it dismissed time and time again as not really art, they’re ‘just crafts’. Representations of people, places, and ideas that are widely recognizable are dismissed as ‘too literal’. I really think that most people who walk through galleries these days are often jaded, or bored, or amused, or bemused, and, as a whole, tired of being talked down to by artists and gallery curators. The public is getting tired of the art world’s pretensions: it often looks as if just about anything can be fastened to the wall, demanding the public’s praise and appreciation so long as it’s accompanied by a description that sounds obscurely profound enough. Conceptual art, on the whole, has grown too elitist and too removed from the most fundamental emotional needs that art, at its best, can fulfill.

I grant that there are some things of value in conceptual art, too. For one thing, as my husband points out, when it was a new movement, it allowed artists to break down artistic boundaries, many of which should have been broken down since they placed too many restraints on innovation and creativity. (I can always count on Bryan to play an effective devil’s advocate, to find the weak and missing points in my arguments; thanks, as always, for keeping me honest, babe!) There are subtle points that conceptual artists can make that are of value and difficult to express fully or eloquently through other means of communication. Sometimes, the concepts explored are important or interesting ones, even if they are too obscurely or affectedly expressed. There are also accidents of beauty and visual interest that occur when an artist is playing freely with materials trying to express something else. And so on and so on.

But nonetheless, I feel that the conceptual art world needs more critics. It needs some competition, it needs some opposition, and I feel just fine in my overall feeling of antipathy to it as it is right now. Conceptual art (with its cousin, abstract art) has its defenders in plenty: namely, nearly every art gallery and museum and patron with deep pockets out there. The representational artists, the visual storytellers, the communicators in paint and clay and fabric and stone and wood trying to reach the widest audience, they’re not honored so much these days, except in the hearts of the grateful public who’s always happy to find artists who are direct and honest with them, who desire to satisfy their longing for beauty and love of a good story. In short, conceptuality in art has become the new paradigm, the new standard, the new orthodoxy. Conceptual art doesn’t suffer from one less champion; the rest of the art world could do with more.

So from the roughest cave painting of our earliest human ancestors to the most finely wrought work by Leonardo da Vinci, from the earthy Venus of Willendorf to the most exquisitely sculpted Michelangelo, from the doll’s dress of the youngest stitcher-in-training to the Parisian couture gown, and from the memory rag-quilt sewn in the half-light of a bayou shack to the most intricate, hand-stitched fine textile work fit for a queen you ever saw: I want to say, I love you the most. Thank you for the joy you bring me, the delight to my senses, and most of all, the communion with the wider world of things and people. Thank you for bridging the gaps.

To Washington DC, Virginia, and Philadelphia I Go, In Search of Thomas Jefferson

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my third philosophical-historical themed adventure, this time in Washington DC, Philadelphia, and various sites in Virginia to follow in the footsteps of…. you may have guessed it… Thomas Jefferson!

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13th, 1743, and in his long life, he accomplished more than most. He was a founding father of the United States, and went from being a young scholar, lawyer, and representative in the Virginia House of Burgesses, to writing the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, to public service as a congressman, as Minister to France, as Secretary of State, as Vice President to friend and rival John Adams, and finally as third president of the United States. Throughout his life, among many other things, he was an inventor, amateur scientist, farmer, avid reader, architect, naturalist, author, founder of the University of Virginia, and of course, philosopher.

He was a fascinatingly complex and contradictory figure: a self-described shy and modest man with a distaste for politics, who time and time again re-entered the strident political arena of his day to eventually reach the highest office in the land; a critic of the national debt and of too much federal power and a strict Constitutional constructionist, who helped create a stronger national government in the first place, and who flouted the Constitution and further indebted the nation to make the Louisiana Purchase; a promoter of personal liberty and a slaveowner; an idealist and a pragmatist.

So off to the east coast I go! There, I’ll visit landmarks associated with his life, and places where he lived, worked, died, thought, wrote, studied, and rested.

I’ll be traveling there from April 18th through the 26th, and will be writing throughout the trip. I’ll be writing not only about his ideas, but about what I can discover about his everyday life in these places, and whatever feeling of the time and place I can capture.

Here’s the story of the trip, and related essays about Jefferson and his ideas:

Should A Minor Be Tried as an Adult Due to the Seriousness of the Crime?

Here’s a case, currently in the news, in which a young girl helps murder her mother because her mother was trying to break up her relationship with her much older boyfriend.

In this case, the girl charged is 14 years old. A long series of text messages, along with forensic evidence, the timeline of events, and the girl’s own testimony indicate that she and her boyfriend did in fact commit the murder (though, of course, this must be proved in court).

Here’s what troubles me most besides the cruel and terrible murder itself: the girl is being charged as an adult. And she’s being charged as an adult, apparently, due to the seriousness of the crime, a practice that’s been allowed in many states for decades. The main argument in favor of this practice goes something like this: if the crime is serious, or ‘adult’ enough (whatever that means), the punishment should be proportionate. Adult crimes, in other words, merit adult punishment.

But wait a minute! In what way does the seriousness of the crime indicate that the girl is capable of the level of reasoning, impulse control, emotional maturity, and therefore moral accountability, of a fully functioning adult? It seems to me that in this case, the seriousness of the crime compared with the triviality of the reasons the girl gives for committing the murder indicates that she is not yet capable of an adult level of understanding.

As my regular readers may know, I hold a rather robust view of personal responsibility. But that’s not the same thing as believing that adolescents, lacking the fully developed brain structures of a person in their early 20’s, should be held to the same standard of accountability as an adult. To me, this is piling one injustice on top of another, if we believe that true justice necessarily includes not only the principle of proportionality of crime to punishment, but of punishment to culpability.

What do you think?