The virtue matrix: Elitism and Populism

American history moves in various cycles. For example:

  • isolationist ↔ interventionist (in foreign policy)
  • prudish/puritan ↔ permissive/liberal (sex)
  • progressive ↔ conservative (attitudes toward change)

But perhaps the most striking and consequential cycle is the one between elitism and populism.

The question here is about virtue. Who is most likely to be virtuous/corruptible? The common people, or the elites?

This question has an ancient pedigree. The answer a society gives at any given time in effect determines the kind of democracy it will practice and the kind of institutions it will build: It will shift power (or pretend to shift power) to the pole it considers more capable of virtue.

I’ll say more about all this in future posts (especially in response to a great biography of Andrew Jackson I just finished reading). But for now I just wanted to amuse myself with another little diagram. As ever, I’m not taking it too seriously, just trying to order my thoughts and invite yours.

Below, I’ve placed some of the figures that have appeared here on The Hannibal Blog over the past two years (each one has a Tag, or you can search for his name) along a spectrum.

Classical thinkers are in normal font, American ones in bold italics.

(Notice the centrality of James Madison, the primary architect of the Constitution. His answer was, in effect, to be agnostic on the question. Therein lies his genius and the strength of the constitution. So he represents the neutral value, 0)

So weigh in. You can also suggest where to place other thinkers, such as John Locke or Montesquieu, or modern pols such as presidential candidates, or foreign politicians.

Gabrielle Giffords, American Gracchus

Gaius Gracchus

The Roman republic was 375 years old — more than 1½ times as old as the American republic is today — when, in 133 BCE, something unprecedented and indeed hitherto unimaginable occurred: domestic political violence.

A populist politician had got himself elected tribune by the citizens of Rome, in exactly the sort of democratic process that Rome was proud of. His name was Tiberius Gracchus, and he was ambitious, idealistic and perhaps somewhat naive. (He was also the grandson of my hero, Scipio Africanus, the nemesis of Hannibal.) This elder Gracchus — he had a younger brother named Gaius — then proposed reforms to improve the lot of the people. Many patricians in the Roman Senate did not like that.

It had never, up to this point, mattered that Senators and Tribunes, plebeians and patricians, Optimates and Populares (those were the names of Rome’s political factions) disagreed on matters of policy.

Of course they disagreed! Peaceful disagreement, in which the more persuasive arguments prevailed over time, was what the Roman republic was about. It was the reason Romans loved Rome.

Rome had withstood existential threats — a sack by the Gauls, near-extinction by Hannibal — without ever sacrificing its founding ideals: inside the city walls, there was no place for violence in politics.

But on that day in 133 BCE, a group of senators and their supporters made their way toward a popular assembly in progress. They beat Tiberius Gracchus and his supporters to death.

Yes, Rome was shocked. Of course it was. This incident had to be an outlier. The exception that proved the rule.

But it seems that a taboo had been broken, a precedent set. Something unthinkable had become thinkable: Political violence.

A decade after Tiberius’s murder, Gaius Gracchus (pictured above) followed in his brother’s footsteps. He, too, got himself elected tribune. He, too, intended to launch reforms.

And again, a mob of senators and their supporters came for him. Gaius fled to a grove and killed himself, as the attackers murdered his supporters.

Another outlier, they told themselves. An exception. Never to be repeated.

And yet, it was repeated. Over the next century the Romans — a people always well-armed, often for the right reasons — began flashing blades to intimidate other Romans in any disagreement. The tone of debate changed. The incidents of political violence became more frequent, and worse.

A taboo once toppled is difficult to re-erect.

Marius, Sulla, Pompey, the Caesars….

Violence, or the threat of it, now prevailed in Rome.

Rome would remain a superpower for much longer. But no longer a republic. Not the Rome that the likes of Scipio Africanus had ever fought for. Not the Rome they considered worth preserving and defending.

Freedom to, freedom from

Pericles' Funeral Oration

Two years ago, near the beginning of my amateurish exploration of the concept of freedom here on The Hannibal Blog, I dabbled a bit in the nuance between

  • negative and
  • positive


As it happens, there is a much, much better treatment of that distinction in this lecture by Hunter Rawlings, a classicist at Cornell (as well as that university’s former president).

We today subscribe largely to the negative concept of freedom. We want to be free from things (intrusion, government, …)

Most of the ancients — such as Pericles, the Athenian statesman who probably summed up classical democracy best in his famous Funeral Oration, pictured above — took nearly the opposite point of view. They wanted to be free to do things (speak in the assembly, sit on juries, fight in the army, co-determine the fate of their polis…)

(One exception in antiquity might be Diogenes, which is perhaps what makes him so interesting to us, or at least to me.)

As Rawlings puts it, neither society, Greek or American, would regard the other as “free”.

The Greco-Romans had a communitarian (and largely tribal) definition of freedom and were concerned about virtue (but hardly at all about property).

Enlightenment thinkers, starting with John Locke, defined freedom in much more individualistic terms and were more concerned about property than virtue.

The mixture of the two strands was at first (in the minds of geniuses such as Madison or Hamilton) tonic. But something has arguably gone wrong in the centuries since then, leading us gradually to stunningly childish and unsophisticated notions about freedom today.

A short excerpt of the lecture is below, but I hope you take time for the full hour, because it is fascinating and touches on all the topics dear to The Hannibal Blog: Greece and Rome, the Founding Fathers, democracy, et cetera.

Incidentally, I discovered the speech through this Greek blog post, which discusses some of my own posts and which Google has only translated for me very imperfectly. Thank you very much!

I’ll leave you with one snippet from Rawlings’ lecture, which is that the ancient Greeks, being so busy with their freedom to participate in the public business, had … no word for boredom! 🙂

Now the excerpt:

The case for Alexander Hamilton (II)

Alexander Hamilton came from a different background than the other Founding Fathers, one that gave him a different worldview and philosophy of governance and freedom.

It is a philosophy that was bitterly contested at the time — and still is today, especially in this “Tea-Party” year. But overall, Hamilton’s vision is the one that prevailed. We today are, to a surprising extent, living in Hamilton’s America. So what was that vision?

  1. In the previous post, I looked at Hamilton as a man, at his character, life and background.
  2. In this post, I try to describe the ideas that such a character, life and background produced, and their timeless (but, as you’ll see, tragic) legacy.

Balance in government

Recall from the previous post that Hamilton, illegitimate and foreign-born, felt like an outsider in America, felt vulnerable as result, and had reason to be pessimistic about human nature, for he had seen, in the West Indies and in revolutionary America, atrocious human acts.

In particular, he had seen how dangerous mobs could be.

Recall also that he was a superb intellect, deeply versed in the classics.

It was therefore natural that he should appreciate an ancient concept, dating all the way back to Polybius and Aristotle: that balance is necessary to preserve liberty.

The government that best reflects human nature, in this view, blends the elements of

  • monarchy,
  • aristocracy (which literally means rule of the best) and
  • democracy.

But they have to stay in balance, because an excess or corruption of any one of these elements will destroy liberty, by becoming, respectively,

  • tyranny,
  • oligarchy or
  • mob rule.

Thus, for example, Aristotle and Polybius considered Carthage and Rome balanced, but Athens during the time of Socrates to be too democratic to be stable. In Hamilton’s own day, the French Revolution might illustrate the point even better: tyranny and oligarchy (the ancien régime) gave way to mob rule (the guillotine), which gave way to another tyranny (Napoleon), without any intervening liberty in more than motto.

In particular, Hamilton and several other important Founding Fathers, especially James Madison, shared with the classical philosophers an admiration of Rome. When they wrote public treatises, such as The Federalist Papers (discussed below), they adopted Roman pen names. Hamilton, for instance, was Publius (after Publius Valerius, the first consul of Republican Rome).


Early in their careers, Hamilton and Madison were intellectual allies in this respect. They wanted a republic, not a democracy. They feared tyrannical minorities and majorities equally. Thus they became the most important individuals in the creation and passing of America’s Constitution.

Madison had more intellectual input into the actual document, and was the note-taker during the Constitutional Convention. But Hamilton and Madison then collaborated in campaigning for that Constitution to be ratified by the states. (The document, much as we esteem it today, was very controversial and ratification was a close call.)

The Federalist Papers

This meant above all explaining and interpreting the proposed Constitution, which Hamilton and Madison, along with John Jay, later the first Chief Justice, did with one of the most impressive literary achievements in history: The Federalist Papers.

The Federalist Papers are a collection of 85 essays, of which 51 are attributed to Hamilton, 29 to Madison and 5 to Jay (so Hamilton was clearly the main author). The essays amount to about 175,000 words. And they wrote them in the space of only seven months, in their spare time (!), for they were still pursuing their main vocations during office hours — Hamilton as a lawyer.

Here is a measure of how important The Federalist Papers continue to be: By the year 2000, they had been quoted 291 times in Supreme Court opinions, with the frequency of citations rising with the years. (p. 261 in Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton)

And in these Federalist Papers, we see Hamiltonian values — meaning the ancient values of balance — on display. Hamilton envisioned:

  • a strong executive, (≈ monarchy)
  • a strong legislature (≈ democracy), and
  • an independent judiciary that could and should, if necessary, overrule the “popular will” if it destroyed liberty. (≈ aristocracy)

Judicial Review (and Prop 8 )

That this last bit is the “aristocratic element” might take a bit of explaining. To be sure, it is not the only aristocratic element in America’s overall structure. The electoral college originally had actual powers to select the president. Members of the upper chamber of the legislature — called the Senate, in direct allusion to Rome — were elected by state legislatures rather than the voters (an idea that many in the Tea Party want to bring back). And so on.

But the judiciary seems to me to be the most important aristocratic check on both potential tyranny and mob rule. In Federalist Nr 78, Hamilton wrote that

no legislative act … contrary to the constitution can be valid.

This sounds simple and obvious now, but it is not actually in the Constitution. In effect, Hamilton said that the Supreme Court (ie, a meritocratic elite) must be able to overturn legislation (ie, the popular will). Hamilton thus prepared the way for a later Supreme Court decision (Marbury v Madison, 1803) that established the concept of judicial review.

And that, of course, is what we have today. If you want to see the inherent and eternal tension that Hamilton foresaw, look, for instance, to the controversy about California’s “Prop 8“:

  • it is a ballot measure (ie, an expression of the popular will),
  • in which a majority voted to restrict a right (marriage) of a minority (gays and lesbians),
  • before a federal court overturned that vote.

Each side in the Prop 8 debate is screaming “tyranny” at the other, but Hamilton’s notion of balance will prevail. Hamilton, in the 18th century, would certainly have been surprised by the context (gay marriage) but not by the principle involved.

Center and periphery: “enumerated” and “implied” powers

That example of Prop 8, in which a federal judge has overturned a state ballot measure, also shows another aspect of Hamilton’s vision: there also had to be a balance between the core and the periphery, between central government and state government.

Recall the previous post again: Hamilton was actively fighting — as George Washington’s chief of staff, mostly — in the Revolutionary War, whereas some of the other Founding Fathers, and specifically Hamilton’s future enemies (I will get to them in a minute), remained in the comfort of their plantations or with the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, with its bustling dinner-party circuit.

What vantage point did that give Hamilton on the fledgling nation?

He saw that the nation was not viable as such. If the United States then has an equivalent today, it would be the United Nations.

America was fighting a professional army and navy (the Brits) with a ragtag force of militiamen who had no uniforms, and often no shoes and weapons. These Americans enlisted for a year at a time, which meant that Washington feared that his entire fighting force might literally disintegrate and vanish at the end of each enlistment period.

The nation, such as it was, had no powers of taxation. At all. So it had no money to pay its soldiers. And it could not issue debt. It relied on the individual states both for money and for soldiers. On occasion, the American troops mutinied, once even marching on Philadelphia and sending Congress to flee from its own soldiers.

This was not an abstract matter for Hamilton or Washington: They were starving and freezing with their soldiers at, for instance, Valley Forge, a miserable plateau in Pennsylvania where the Americans wintered in 1778-9.

The painting above (of Washington and Lafayette on horseback, with perhaps Hamilton as the rider behind them?) does not really do the misery justice. According to Chernow’s new biography of Washington, the Americans (unlike the soldier in the picture) had no shoes, no coats, sometimes no shirts, and were dying of cold, disease and starvation.

So Hamilton and Washington formed a vision of a strong center, one that could feed and clothe its soldiers and hold the states together. For the center to be strong, it would have to have a professional army, and powers of taxation and borrowing (“Aha,” say the Tea Partiers of 2010…).

When opponents later charged that the Constitution did not explicitly mention the things necessary to build such a strong central government (for example a Central Bank), Hamilton replied that

it is not denied that there are implied as well as express powers.

And thus Hamilton, almost en passant, submitted another evergreen argument into American politics, which you hear debated this year by Tea Partiers parsing “enumerated” and “implied” powers.

But Hamilton was not for a Leviathan (I believe he would be shocked by the bloat of our federal government today). He definitely envisioned the central government, though strong, as sitting atop states that remained otherwise sovereign in their daily affairs. Hence the “federalist” nature of the new country, and the name Hamiltonians called themselves: Federalists.

The federal balance that Hamilton conceived was so stable that Switzerland, in 1848, imported it wholesale and Germany, a century later, in large part.

The first American Capitalist

Alexander Hamilton was the only Founding Father who grasped not just one but both revolutions occurring in his time:

  1. the political revolution in governance and
  2. the industrial revolution.

For background: America was an agrarian society. The colonies were dependent on Britain for manufactures. There were no companies as such (both the legal form and the accounting systems did not exist in any form recognizable to us). Banks as such did not exist. Stock exchanges did not exist.

Hamilton’s enemies, primarily Thomas Jefferson, wanted to keep it that way. To Jefferson, an agrarian America was more “pure” than an industrial America. Here, arguably, likes the origin of America’s schizophrenia regarding “Main Street” versus “Wall Street”. But let’s remember (recall once again the previous post) that the agrarian “purity” of which Jefferson talked was based on slave plantations such as his own in Virginia. It was pre-capitalist, yes, but in a feudal, illiberal, dehumanizing way.

Hamilton, on the other hand, wanted to abolish slavery and looked ahead to a capitalist era. He read Adam Smith’s (then new) Wealth of Nations. He grasped modern concepts of finance. He wanted America to manufacture things, and to finance this new economy with banks and securities.

So he entered the most fruitful period of his career, as the first Treasury Secretary. Washington was president, and the only two other members of the cabinet were Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State and Henry Knox as Secretary of War. But neither Jefferson nor Knox had much to do, whereas Hamilton became a de facto prime minister to Washington in putting the new country together. Within a few years, Knox had a dozen civilian employees in War, Jefferson had six at State, and Hamilton had … more than 500 at the Treasury. Knox was a jovial nature and didn’t care. But Jefferson was seething.

Hamilton was too busy to care. Within a few years, he created:

  • a central bank,
  • a monetary policy and paper currency to go with it,
  • a stock exchange,
  • a coast guard and customs service to collect the tariffs that were to finance the government (there was no income tax).

In short, he seeded the modern American economy.

The tragic lesson: American inversion of reality

You may agree by now that Hamilton was a genius and that, yes, his vision, more than any other Founding Father’s, created the nation we know. But I personally have learned more from the tragic aspect of his career.

The tragedy has to do with the political inversion of reality that was threatening to undo Hamilton’s career when he died so prematurely in his duel.

And that, too, may be the Founding Fathers’ legacy to us.

What am I talking about?

Opposition to Hamilton and his ideas started early. Some compatriots always found something sinister in his charm and success and genius, in his foreign origins and cosmopolitan attitudes, and in specific opinions such as Hamilton’s abolitionism.

For example, during the struggle in the states to ratify the Constitution, the anti-federalists began posing as populists, even though the most prominent of them were rich slave owners. Patrick Henry of Virginia — the very same Henry who famously said “Give me Liberty or give me Death!” — argued against the Constitution by telling delegates that

They’ll free your niggers.

Others, less blunt than Henry, wrapped their scorn in the emerging meme of the day, which painted Hamilton as a closet monarchist or aristocrat, whereas the (slave-owning) agrarians were the true democrats.

George Washington, who usually kept a dignified distance from the political swamp but reliably sided with Hamilton, wryly observed the irony:

It is a little strange that the men of large property in the South should be more afraid that the Constitution will produce an aristocracy or a monarchy than the genuine, democratical people of the East.

By the “people of the East” he meant the mostly northern farmers, merchants and industrialists in Hamilton’s circles.

Hamilton himself also deployed his irony. In a newspaper piece in 1791, referring to Madison and Jefferson, he wrote (Chernow, p. 307):

As to the negroes, you must be tender upon the subject … Who talk most about liberty and equality …? Is it not those who hold the bill of rights in one hand and a whip for affrighted slaves in the other?

But irony rarely wins in America. Then as now, the most effective political strategy in American politics is relentlessly repetitive attack until reality becomes what the attacker wants it to be. Jefferson was the worst offender, but Madison, Hamilton’s erstwhile soulmate, was just as bad after he split from Hamilton and went over to the “Republican” side.

And let’s reflect on that label the Jeffersonians chose, for a moment. Why call yourself “Republican” if not to imply that your opponents are un-republican? Everything you’ve read in this post so far tells you that Hamilton was a true republican, and yet Jefferson and his cronies now campaigned to make people think the opposite.

And cronies they had plenty. (Both sides did, to be fair). The Fox News of the day was the National Gazette, first published in 1791, a newspaper that served as the mouthpiece for Jeffersonian attacks branding Hamilton as a monarchist, tyrant and what not.

And thus it was that

  • the future presidents Jefferson and Madison, the patrician owners of slaves and plantations, became known and remembered for generations as the folksy democrats who were close to the land and people, whereas
  • Hamilton, the illegitimate quasi-orphan from the Caribbean who had worked his way to success with sheer talent and grit and who wanted to free the slaves, became the elitist aristocrat.

I have, in the paragraphs above, suggested several modern analogs to the issues raised in this post. But I will leave you to ponder this last subject on your own. And I will end, very much as Hamilton might, on that note of pessimism.

The case for Alexander Hamilton (I)

Alexander Hamilton is “my favorite” Founding Father, as I’ve hinted several times before. But I’ve never actually explained what I meant by that.

In this and the next post, I will try to unravel which aspects of this complex, visionary and soulful man (just look at that portrait above!) so resonate with me.

  • In this first post, I’ll sketch the man, his temperament, his journey and philosophy about people and life.
  • In the next post, I’ll describe his intellectual contribution to American governance and political philosophy.

You’ll see after the second post that the man can’t be separated from his ideas, nor the ideas from the man. And you’ll see (I hope) how timeless — meaning: relevant today — Hamilton is.

I will give you my interpretation, but my main source is Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of Hamilton. (I am now reading Chernow’s new biography of George Washington as well.)

Now, to Hamilton, the man:

1) He was an outsider who ended up on the inside

Hamilton was the only Founding Father born outside of what became the United States. He was born in a Caribbean hellhole (called Nevis, in the West Indies) that seemed to specialize in tropical diseases, random violence and the slave trade.

And he was born as an ‘outsider’ in another way: he was illegitimate. His mother was not married to his ostensible father, James Hamilton, and even James Hamilton was probably not his biological father (instead, that seems to have been a gentleman by the name of Thomas Stevens).

His childhood was rough. When Hamilton was a teenager, in the space of a few years,

  • his mother died,
  • his father vanished,
  • his aunt and uncle and grandmother also died,
  • his cousin committed suicide, and
  • Alexander and his brother were disinherited and left penniless orphans.

As Chernow puts it:

that this fatherless adolescent could have ended up a founding father of a country he had not yet even seen seems little short of miraculous.

2) He had an open mind

This experience might mark him as, yes, an American archetype: The Immigrant Who Reinvents Himself.

Reinvent himself he certainly would — several times throughout his short life, and in a unique, and uniquely compelling, way.

He began by getting himself to America. Through savvy, wit, charm, chutzpah, and luck, Hamilton found himself on a trading ship to New York, with an allowance from an older mentor and a job that gave him a bottom-up view of international commerce, shipping and smuggling. (Much later, this expertise would serve him well, when he founded the US customs service and Coast Guard.)

Already his mind was expansive, open to new worlds, both of experiences and ideas. Coming from the Caribbean, he was bilingual in English and French (although, unlike Franklin, Jefferson and Adams, he would never set foot in that superpower of the day).

He was, in a word, cosmopolitan. And this would, yet again, mark him as an outsider in America. For America has always had, and continues to have, an ambivalent — nay, schizophrenic — relationship with cosmopolitan types. Yes, Americans sometimes admire and appreciate them and their perspective. But they also distrust cosmopolitans and are ready to exclude them at a whim — by calling them elitist, for example, or insinuating that they are not real Americans.

Hamilton was also unapologetically erudite, immersing himself into the classics, and in particular in Plutarch, one of my favorites. Among the Founding Fathers he was in good company in this respect, for they all valued intellect and learning. But in America at large this erudition would — yet again — make him potentially suspect, for America has always had, and continues to have, the same ambivalence toward intellectuals that it has toward cosmopolitans.

3) He had a romantic sense of honor

His illegitimate and Caribbean background, and his cosmopolitan style, made him vulnerable to attacks on his reputation. Understandably enough, Hamilton was therefore unusually touchy about his good name, and fiercely keen about defending it. He was an Enlightenment man who believe in reason and law, but he simultaneously retained an older, classical, romantic, even Homeric sense of honor.

His thirst to earn and defend his honor — and specifically his American and patriotic honor — made him demand to be in battle, in the line of actual fire. So he fought with extra valor in the war and came to the attention of George Washington. Hamilton was 22 and Washington 43 when the general made the young man his protégé and chief of staff, giving Hamilton not only a perfect view into American history as it unfolded but a role in shaping it.

Washington was tall, imposing, dignified, laconic and kept his emotions bottled up. Hamilton was five foot seven, slim and athletic, elegant, gave his emotions free reign and was so articulate that he talked himself into trouble as much as out of it. The two men, so different and yet like father and son, would form one of the most important relationships in history.

Hamilton yearned to be more than chief of staff. He wanted to become a war hero, by commanding troops and risking his life. At Yorktown, Washington gave him that command and Hamilton became that hero, after fighting as though driven by a death wish.

In this respect, Hamilton was certainly very different than those Founding Fathers who would become his enemies — above all Jefferson, who somehow always found himself where there was no physical danger, and in one case (when he was governor of Virginia) actually fled on horseback from fighting, for which he was accused of dereliction of duty.

(Remember this when we get to the next post, and the hyper-partisan fight between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians.)

4) He was ethical but all-too-human

The biggest ethical issue of the day was, of course, slavery. And how did Hamilton regard this institution?

As despicable and evil. He was unambiguous and clear about it. He was the first and staunchest abolitionist among the Founding Fathers.

To us this is a no-brainer, but to Americans at the time it was not. Washington, Jefferson, Madison and all the Southern Founding Fathers owned, bought and sold slaves. They may have had qualms, but never enough to free their slaves or to push for abolition (Washington was the only one of them to emancipate his slaves after his death). This, of course, is the founding irony at the heart of the American idea: Thomas Jefferson owned human beings at the very instant in which he wrote the words “… life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

So Hamilton was unusual in that he was ethically on the right side of this issue. Which would make it all the more ironic — in that inevitable American way — that his political enemies, including some of the aforementioned slave owners, would later try to paint him as immoral.

How? The way one does this in America: with a sex scandal. Hamilton, stupidly and unnecessarily, allowed himself to be seduced. It was America’s first public and politicized bimbo eruption, a sort of proto-Lewinsky affair. It is of no interest or consequence to us, but it was in its day.

Hamilton was certainly a charmer and flirt. That episode aside, however, Hamilton was also a devoted husband and father, perhaps because he had never had a father. He and his wife had an intimate bond. And his eight children meant everything to him. When his oldest son, handsome and also sensitive about his honor, died in a duel, Hamilton went to pieces in grief.

5) He had a nuanced grasp of human nature

From his reading of history and the classics, and his own upbringing in the West Indies, Hamilton developed a sophisticated worldview that was somewhat pessimistic about human nature, at least in comparison to the — then as now — reflexive and simplistic optimism that usually wins arguments in America.

Thus he saw the potential evil of tyranny — which, of course, he was actively fighting with Washington in the war against the British crown — but he also saw the potential evil of mobs, of anarchy. There was a lot of violence in those days, much of it directed at Tories or loyalists, who might easily end up tarred-and-feathered or even lynched. But Hamilton, even though he fought for the republic, always remained humane towards individuals on the other side — and wary of mobs on any side.

Our countrymen have all the folly of the ass and all the passiveness of the sheep in their compositions,

he once said. And that would lead him to say things such as this:

We should blend the advantages of a monarchy and of a republic in a happy and beneficial union.

But that will be the segue to the next post.

6) He died as he lived, but too young

But before I hand over to that next post, just one final anecdote that gives a glimpse into his character. Because he guarded his reputation and honor so jealously, he had, on occasion, to duel. He certainly saw the folly of dueling as he got older. He must even have hated it after he lost his beloved son in a duel.

But when, in the ordinary course of bitter partisan politics, certain things were said between him and a vulgar mediocrity named Aaron Burr, Hamilton picked up the very pistols his son had used, rowed across the Hudson to New Jersey (duelling was illegal in New York), and met his challenger in a clearing by the river.

It appears that Hamilton shot first, but “threw his shot away”, in the parlance. In other words, he deliberately missed by firing into air, thus signaling that both parties had satisfied the requirements of honor and could end this business without shedding blood.

Then it was Burr’s turn. But Burr had a different sense of chivalry. He aimed at Hamilton and found his target.

Hamilton, in convulsions, was rowed back to New York, where he died many agonizing hours later, as his family and city grieved over the loss of a great man, who, aged about 47, had already changed the world in ways that would only fully become clear generations later.

The American joy deficit

The Americans,” he wrote (and it is your job to guess who he is),

strive for gold; and their breathless haste … is already spreading to the old Europe… Already one is ashamed of keeping still; long reflection almost gives people a bad conscience. One thinks with a watch in hand, as one eats lunch with an eye on the financial pages … the desire for joy already calls itself ‘the need to recuperate’ … ‘one owes it to one’s health’ — that is what one says when caught on an excursion in the countryside. Soon we may well reach the point where one cannot give in to the desire for a vita contemplativa [contemplative life] (that is, taking a walk with ideas and friends) …

Bookmark and Share

Contemplating America’s desert civilization

ONE late November night in 1980 I was flying over the state of Utah on my way back to California.

Thus Marc Reisner began his 1986 book Cadillac Desert, quoted to this day in the West’s perennial water wars.

I remembered his lines this week as I myself was flying back from Utah to California, and also looking out of my window at the desert below, baked dead by the July sun.

[This note is cross-posted from my note on The Economist‘s Democracy in America blog.]

As Mr Reisner did then, I looked down and contemplated the barren mountains, mesas and buttes and the endless empty expanses of salt and sand, one of the most inhospitable wastelands in the world.

This is where Brigham Young and his Mormons had decided to make “a Mesopotamia in America”, as Mr Reisner put it. Then, in the early 20th century, the federal Bureau of Reclamation took over their work and dammed the West’s rivers to impose the will of America upon this desert.

There, on the horizon, I espied the result: Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir, formed as the pathetically small, snaking trickle of the Colorado River runs into the Hoover Dam and backs up.

As Mr Reisner put it:

Thanks to the Bureau—an agency few people know—states such as California, Arizona, and Idaho became populous and wealthy; millions settled in regions where nature, left alone, would have countenanced thousands at best; great valleys and hemispherical basins metamorphosed from desert blond to semitropic green.

The people in the states below my aeroplane are today among the most conservative in America. The tea-party movement thrives here. Big government is the enemy.

How ironic that the people are only on that land because big government first subdued it.

Then again, “subdue” may be a word from another time and worldview. The water wars have never really stopped (Californians will vote on another water bond in November, in the never-ending effort to bring water from where it rains to where the people live). And in the long run, as Mr Reisner might say, the desert may yet subdue the people.

Bookmark and Share

High on freedom and honest debate

I find that a great test of whether your instincts are liberal (as classically and correctly defined to mean freedom-loving) is how you approach the question of legalising marijuana.

In the current issue of The Economist I try to summarize the debate in California about Proposition 19 in November, a ballot measure that would legalize cannabis for those 21 or older.

And in an accompanying podcast, I interview an opponent and a proponent of legalization, both carefully chosen, in an attempt to get beyond mere gut instincts to clarify the arguments for and against. I wonder how you guys would interpret that conversation.

Bookmark and Share

Perhaps not one for The Economist


The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) is a fascinating and provocative outfit and has so much to say — albeit in an oblique way — about America, as I said in the previous post.

Who else would study, with the same quasi-scientific rigor and implicit irony, the following?

  • Yucca Mountain (above), America’s preferred dumping ground for nuclear waste,
  • Cathedral Canyon (below), a random crack in the desert turned into religious shrine,
  • Emergency training centers such as Del Valle, California (all the way at the bottom), and
  • the thousands and thousands of other non-obvious but telling places in America

And yet, we decided not to run a piece on it in The Economist. At least for the time being.



I decided to let you peak into the process because I think it might give you a useful glimpse into

  1. writing, and
  2. The Economist

Specifically, the issue involved all of the writerly themes that you guys and I have been writing about:

Here is what happened

After my visit to the CLUI, I did indeed write a draft, at about 700 words, for our US Section. And I sent it off.

I had an unsure feeling. I felt that I had not done justice to the CLUI or the places I had chosen as examples.

1) Length

Our pieces in The Economist are short, and they are best when they compress complexity into a dense and yet simple and forceful narrative. The CLUI, however, seemed to need the opposite: not to be compressed but to be expanded and developed. It seemed to need length.

2) Momentum

Worse, I had not spotted an underlying narrative in the CLUI (or the Museum of Jurassic Technology, for that matter) at all. This, in fact, is my criticism of the CLUI: They are so meticulous about their neutrality that they forget to do storytelling.

In fact, the Center’s name is a misnomer. It is not the Center for Land Use Interpretation but the Center for Land Use Observation. The interpretation is what is missing.

3) Voice

So I felt that to do this justice, I would have had to make it a humorous-but-profound story about a search for something elusive.

When you’re searching in vain, the story is about doubt, uncertainty, futility. Not things that The Economist is naturally good at, even though I excel at them personally. 😉

4) The First  Person

To be really fun, moreover, a search narrative would have to be about me, the searcher. Me looking for answers and getting confused. Me on a CLUI bus in the desert with other searchers…

The First Person: Definitely not something that The Economist is naturally good at. 😉 😉

(Since we have no bylines, we also have no First Person. It is banned. The most you might see is “As your correspondent took his seat…”. Yuck.)

Conclusion: This really wanted to be a New Yorker piece.

A few weeks later, I got an email from my editor. He essentially said the same thing:

The problem with the piece as it stands is that it poses a lot of questions, but does not answer them. I appreciate that that is part of the philosophy the point of the CLUI, but it doesn’t really satisfy as a US section article. It reads too much to me like a long list of interesting and not-so-interesting places…

What is it, in fact, that we learn about American culture from the landscape, other than its uses are many and various? That America (like every other country) cherishes, abuses and neglects its physical space? …

I think this piece could benefit from being longer… Such a longer and more narrative piece would not, I think, work in the US section.

In a way, this was reassuring: My editor and I had come to exactly the same conclusion independently.

There was another upshot: Another editor had read it and expressed interest in a longer and more narrative version for our Christmas Issue, the one occasion every year when we really let our writerly hair down.

Did I want to expand the piece for the Christmas issue?

Opting for easy

This is when experience kicked in (13 years at The Economist now).

My experience told me that it was time to move on.

I did a risk-benefit analysis. I could sink a lot more time and effort into this story in the hope that a forceful narrative might emerge out of it. Or I could write the many easy and obvious stories that were offering themselves to me like streetwalkers.

In case you’re wondering, there is pressure on us to perform. We’re supposed to write something in every issue, on average. In fact, the last sentence in that same email from my editor was:

PS: that said, I am therefore in the market for a piece from you next week! Can you call me on the mob once you’re up and about?

And so I moved back into streetwalker alley, where it has been easy pickings and obvious stories since.

How judge ye?


Bookmark and Share

America seen through non-obvious places


This picture says a lot about the American character.

Or does it?

The question, rather than the answer, may be the point. That, at least, seems to be the premise of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, which allowed me to use this and the other pictures in this post.

The Center is one of the strangest entities I know of. You might ask, what is it?

Let’s start with what it is not, despite the general sound of its name. It is

  • not a government agency,
  • not a think tank, and
  • not a lobby.

Well, then, what? After struggling to answer this question (which is what this post is about), I will venture these two options:

  • a deliberate mystery designed to make Americans aware of their peripheral vision, and possibly
  • an inside job, which is to say an incredibly cunning and subversive satire of America.

But that’s for you to judge. Let’s start with the facts:

The Center is located at 9331 Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. Outwardly, this is a nondescript block on a slightly depressing thoroughfare of the sort that the city is infamous for. Inside, however, it may be the strangest block in America. For the Center shares a building with the Museum of Jurassic Technology (of which, more in a moment) which is at 9341 Venice Boulevard, just one door down.

The contents of the Center include a vast database of pictures, descriptions, videos, maps and other information about American places. Furthermore, the Center occasionally organizes bus tours to some of those places. This can look as follows:


But that still tells you nothing. Why should this be interesting?

Well, trustworthy sources had brought it to my attention, so I went there for a visit.


I chatted with Matthew Coolidge, the Center’s founder, while gazing at a multimedia exhibit (ie, a video) of a stretch of California highway that I’ve driven on many times. It was slightly surreal and yet hypnotic.

“You seem to be drawn to drab, banal or ugly places,” I said to Matthew.

“What is ugly?,” he probed. Calling something ugly is judging, and judging distracts from observation.

My source had prepared me to expect subtle irony, so this was perhaps it. If so, Matthew played his role perfectly. He spoke dispassionately, like a scientist — “anthropogeomorphologist”, is the delightful word he used.

He said, more or less, that the Center’s mission is to make people aware of surroundings they usually try to ignore because they seem un-noteworthy. Office parks. Garbage dumps. Deserts. Highways.

“It’s like negative tourism,” as a friend of mine had put it. In other words, the places of interest are not the obvious ones (Disneyland, The Golden Gate Bridge, et cetera) but all the others. That leaves a lot of places.

For example, America’s vast empty places.

Americans do strange things in them.

Sometimes, for example, (as at the Nevis Range in Nevada) they bomb or nuke them for practice:


Strangely beautiful, isn’t it? Almost like art.

Other times, the places are eerie. Towns like St. Thomas, Nevada, for example. It is usually invisible, having been submerged under Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, when the Hoover Dam was built. But St. Thomas re-appears during droughts, emerging like a ghost town or haunted museum from the waters:

Savoring contradictions

As my source put it, most people who go on the Center’s tours or sojourn in its database soon find that the “juxtapositions accumulate force.” Whatever they might have thought about America before, they are tempted to re-examine it.

But what might the conclusion be? This is what kept bothering me.

Both Matthew and his Center are militant about not having an explicit point of view.

As Ralph Rugoff, an art curator and director of London’s Hayward Gallery, puts it, this “flagrant nonpartisanship” is “slightly suspicious”.

If you are at all like me, it is also unsatisfying.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology

Matthew must have sensed my dissatisfaction when we stood together, for he suddenly asked me: “Have you been next door yet?”

Next door is of course the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

“Not yet,” I answered. “What is it about?”

“The less you know the better,” Matthew answered.

“Are they connected to you?”, I asked.

Matthew seemed to suppress a smirk: “No.”

Suddenly, a female voice wafted to my ears from behind us. “Connected only in spirit,” she said.

I turned, and beheld Matthew’s partner. I had never noticed her entering the room, but there she sat. She was patting a black cat.

Patting a black cat.

I went next door.

A few meters and seconds later, I entered the Museum. I was about to make my voluntary contribution into the money jar when somebody said: “Are you the journalist?”

“I am a journalist,” I answered.

“They said you should go in free,” came the reply.

How did “they” beat me, I wondered. Clearly, there had to be an internal door. I entered.

The museum is — how to put it — disconcerting.

It was dark and clammy. There were — or seemed to be, I can no longer tell — disquieting noises. One exhibit is a model of American trailer parks. Another, about “mouse cures”, consists of two dead mice on toast, with the explanation that this sort of thing was once said to have cured bed wetting and stammering in children. Another exhibit featured “salted teeth.” So it went.

The Museum baffled me even more than the Center next door.

Finally, I pieced together a narrative for myself:

The Museum seemed to be a meta-museum: a museum that mocks museums. It communicates bemusement at the human tendency to put things behind glass and stare at them, and at our underlying ignorance combined with confident superstition.

How, then, was it “connected in spirit” to the Center, as the lady with the black cat had said?

It had to be that the Center comments on America as the Museum comments on humanity, and that both, realizing that they are inside jokes, know that they must never explain the punch line.

Somewhat disconcerted, I left and began contemplating whether and how I might turn this into a story for The Economist, as I had intended. What that led to will be the subject of the next post.

Bookmark and Share