Sunday, January 31, 2016

Photo of the Day: Stopping by Snowy Woods and a River

As mid-afternoon approached today and the temperatures started to climb where I live in Bergen County, NJ, I figured that I would be able to do a decent amount of walking, as well as get a nice backdrop of melting snow by the Saddle River in Ridgewood. 

I did not expect to be in the foreground of any photo until a fellow walker, noticing me snapping one shot after another, kindly asked if I might want to be in one. Though this shot focused on me, dozens of people –perhaps still a bit stir-crazy from last weekend’s storm—were out today on the path next to the river, and later this week I'll include them among these photos.

Flashback, January 1786: Jefferson, Madison Team on Religious Freedom Statute

Capping a decade-long effort, Thomas Jefferson (pictured) finally succeeded in getting Virginia to enact a statute of religious freedom that would later serve as a model for the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of conscience. But the measure only passed in January 1786 with the help of the younger man who steered it through the legislature, James Madison.

Jefferson regarded the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom as so key to his legacy that it was one of only three achievements he wished carved on his gravestone on the grounds of his Monticello estate.(The others were writing the Declaration of Independence and founding the University of Virginia--not serving as America's first Secretary of State, or its third President.)

If Jefferson was the architect of religious freedom in the new republic, then Madison was the contractor engaged in translating his blueprint into reality. The latter would play a similar role over the next two decades, assisting Jefferson in forming an opposition party to the economic plans of Alexander Hamilton, in secretly co-writing the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions against the Federalist-sponsored Alien and Sedition Acts, and in acting as Secretary of State through Jefferson’s two terms as President.

Their collaboration began in the 1770s, at a time when religious agitation was echoing the larger mercantile and political unrest convulsing Virginia. In 1774, “Dissenting” ministers—at that point, Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist sects—had been harassed, even beaten and jailed, in the colony. 

In what became Madison’s first important cause, petitions began to arrive at the legislature calling for the “Disestablishment” of the Anglican Church. Two years later, at Virginia’s revolutionary convention, Jefferson joined with Madison in trying to excise all “emoluments and privileges” from religion. But they could only succeed in replacing the phrase “fullest toleration in the exercise of religion” with “free exercise of religion.”

Jefferson particularly felt at a loss in debating the measure, because his weak voice could not advance his powerful words. (For the rest of his career, he tried, whenever possible, to avoid public speaking—even sending the State of the Union summary to Congress in written form, a practice continued by other Presidents until Woodrow Wilson broke with tradition more than a century later.) Thus was joined what he would call "the severest contest in which I have ever been engaged."

The impetus for the eventually successful legislation came in 1784, when Governor Patrick Henry called for taxing Virginians to support the promotion of Christianity. His proposal, which soon garnered widespread support (including from the likes of "Light-Horse Harry" Lee and George Washington), called for individuals to designate the denomination, or even the specific church, that their tax dollars would fund. Those who didn't want to support religion could even elect to put their tax dollars toward education in general.

Madison felt that, seemingly as liberal as this seemed, it was still too intrusive, because the same state authority that could direct funds to any Christian sect could later turn around and designate a particular Christian sect. He lost the original fight in the legislature against Henry, but in the hiatus that followed, rallied opposition to the plan with a powerfully argued “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments." With Henry’s proposal now allowed to quietly die in the legislature, Madison seized the moment to reintroduce Jefferson’s measure.

Even then, much like his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, some clauses were stripped away from the three-paragraph statute, including:

*“Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds”;

*[God] “manifested his supreme will that free it [the mind] shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint”;

*[God chose] “but to extend it [his plan] by its influence on reason alone”; and that

*“the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction.”

The deletions revolve around the notion that religious belief depends on reason, an idea that perhaps, to many, smacked too much of Jefferson’s deism. One passage that survived the cuts, in fact, would have been understood by the Protestant legislators as a not-so-subtle jab at Roman Catholicism: “the impious presumption of legislators...[who] have assumed dominion over the faith of others...hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world.”

Jefferson is not my favorite among the Revolutionary War generation. His hypocrisy as a slaveowner is only one of a number of ways in which his political and personal judgment was deficient. He also recognized far too late the damage done by France’s Reign of Terror; blustered about taking Canada with little more than a squadron of gunboats, leaving the United States unprepared when it did invade its northern neighbor in the War of 1812; secretly funded attacks on Hamilton and even George Washington, then denied he had done so; and planted the seeds of secession with his contention, in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, that states could nullify federal legislation.

As Jefferson did so often in his political writing, he fashioned a coherent, persuasive brief on the proper role of church and state, only to nearly undo it all with rhetoric that his allies had to water down. The Statute, in fact, contributed to the misperception that he was an atheist.

That did not accurately describe Jefferson’s religious feelings, but they were complicated enough that he realized they could be misconstrued, so he discussed his spiritual search with only a few intimates. Unlike Benjamin Franklin, another deist, he did not believe, more or less, that virtually all religions had good points and deserved his money. As a spiritual corollary to his notion that that government was best which governed least, he felt that that religion was best with the least number of priests. “There would never have been an infidel if there had never been a priest,” he wrote to Mrs. Samuel Smith. Four years before his death, he wrote another confidant, “I trust there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.”

Jefferson could foresee an end to multiple religious sects, but not a day when America could let go of slavery, the “wolf [held] by the ears.” He was wrong on both counts. Yet he correctly saw the egalitarian value of educational institutions and libraries, and, early on, grasped the value and necessity of state non-interference with religion.

In one sense, Jefferson’s defense of religious freedom ultimately helped to preserve the foremost physical embodiment of his legacy. Each year, thousands make the pilgrimage to Monticello, his neoclassically inspired mansion in Virginia’s Piedmont region. What hardly anyone realizes is that it was a near-run thing whether the estate would sink into irretrievable ruin following his death in 1826—and that one of the only reasons it survived was because two of its subsequent owners could not forget the debt of gratitude they owed the author of the religious freedom statute for helping to create a space where they could live out their Jewish faith without fear of harassment or persecution.

Strapped for money, Jefferson could not maintain Monticello in the last few years before his death, leaving the grounds in what several observers saw as “slovenly” conditions. Charlottesville druggist James Barclay, upon buying the property from Jefferson’s daughter, allowed it to continue to deteriorate. It took Lt. (later Commodore) Uriah P. Levy, who bought Monticello from Barclay in 1834, and his nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, to stop the estate’s decay and restore it to at least something like its old grandeur.

Uriah Levy’s admiration for Jefferson was unconditional: “I consider Thomas Jefferson to be one of the greatest men in history, the author of the Declaration and an absolute democrat. He serves as an inspiration to millions of Americans. He did much to mold our Republic in a form in which a man's religion does not make him ineligible for political or governmental life."

Had Lt. Levy known of Jefferson’s private views, he might have experienced something like the surprise I had in Providence in mid-fall, when I discovered that that earlier champion of religious tolerance, Roger Williams, had been scathing in his views on Catholics. In Jefferson’s case, he regarded Jewish ideas of God and his attributes as “degrading and injurious,” and their ethics “often irreconcilable with the sound dictates of reason and morality” and “repulsive and anti-social as respecting other nations.”

At the same time, Jefferson was not anti-Semitic; he was merely submitting Judaism to the same skeptical focus he trained on all religions, and particularly any in which a mediating minister was involved. But he did think that any person was free to believe as exactly as they might wish, no matter how illogical or wrongheaded he personally might regard it. 

As he put it, in most succinct and memorable form, in Notes on the State of Virginia: “The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. ... Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.”

Quote of the Day (John Calvin, on Doing ‘What God Requires of Us’)

“It behooves us to accomplish what God requires of us, even when we are in the greatest despair respecting the results.”— John Calvin, letter to Philip Melanchthon, March 5, 1555, Letters of John Calvin: Vol. III: compiled from the original manuscripts and edited with historical notes by Dr. Jules Bonnet, translated from Latin and French by Marcus Robert Gilchrist

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Photo of the Day: The Providence That Buddy Left Behind

In selecting and editing the image that accompanies this post, I not only cropped my original photo but also, because of the waning, mid-afternoon light of the late-October day in which it was taken, lightened the setting: the lovely, water-centered downtown of Providence, R.I. In certain ways, something similar is occurring in summaries of the life of a man instrumental in remaking this landscape, former mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, who died Thursday at age 74.

In the attempt to get a sharp focus on his life, a number of commentaries have inevitably excised certain elements that would add context. At the same time, the darkness that existed at various points in his life has been radically reduced, to the point that the question legitimately arises whether one is getting a true picture of past and current reality.

In guidebooks I read and a tour I took of Providence on a short vacation last fall, Cianci was, after Roger Williams, the name that came up repeatedly. The general gist of these fast summaries went something like this:

“See that gentrified neighborhood? It was organized-crime turf for decades before Buddy prosecuted the Mafia as part of the Rhode Island Attorney General's Anti-Corruption Strike Force. See our downtown? It symbolized Rust Belt urban decay until Buddy supported historic preservation and creating Waterside Park. People even started calling Providence ‘America’s Renaissance City’! And Buddy was everywhere wearing this toupee that he called his ‘squirrel.’ Then he ran afoul of the law and went to jail. Now he’s out. Wanna guess what he’s doing? Hosting his own radio talk show, that’s what! Can you believe it?”

In a number of these commentaries about Buddy (it was never “Vincent” or even “Vince”), the words “charm” and “rogue” appeared so closely together that the temptation seemed irresistible to conflate the two, as if he were a successor to New York’s Prohibition-era mayor, Jimmy Walker, or Boston’s James Michael Curley (the model for the hero of Edwin O’Connor’s classic novel about the decline of big-city political machines, The Last Hurrah). 

And he seems positively consequential when one looks around Providence and sees a tangible architectural legacy, completely unlike the monstrous Albany glass boxes created by New York Governor Rockefeller: a downtown whose gondolas and popular Waterfire display has led some to view Providence as a New England version of Venice. The city rediscovered its heart through three rivers redirected with Buddy's support.

Unfortunately, Buddy could redirect bodies of water far more easily than he could rechannel his own restless energy, greed and resentment. Over the years, some New Yorkers have spoken of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani with the same disdain they might display towards another grim zealot, Tomas De Torquemada of the Spanish Inquisition. 

But it may be that Cianci’s snappy one-liners made him far more dangerous in his own sphere than Giuliani could ever hope to be in his. After all, Giuliani was only “America’s Mayor” for two terms; Buddy was elected to lead “America’s Renaissance City” six times.

For a long time, humor was, I believe, Buddy’s stay-out-of-jail card. For the first nine years of his time in City Hall, 22 city workers and contractors—including Buddy’s chief of staff and city solicitor—were convicted of corruption charges. But the mayor was not charged for those offenses. Far too many people would rather take the word of this uninhibited extrovert that he didn’t know a thing about what went on under his own nose.

What got him the first time, in 1984, was an act too blatant and brutal to ignore: Suspecting that a contractor was having an affair with his estranged wife, Buddy summoned him to his home, on the pretext of negotiating city business. With the contractor seated in a chair in front of the fireplace, surrounded by a uniformed cop, the city’s director of Public Works and Cianci’s divorce lawyer, Buddy slapped his target around repeatedly, daring him to hit back, then threw an ashtray at him and threatened him with a fireplace log.

That first stint in City Hall ended with Buddy’s resignation from City Hall, the condition of his plea deal. But given the assault and the use of city officials to back him up, Buddy was lucky to get off even that easily.

All things considered, Buddy wasn’t out of office that long: only six years till he was back in City Hall. Originally a Republican, he had by this time turned independent, the way that a canceled sitcom might migrate from one network to another. These were the years when he became a media personality: acclaimed for reclaiming downtown, appearing on Don Imus, promoting his own pasta sauce—all while posing as chastened by his earlier career reversal.

For someone whose greatest weapon might have been the entertainment he brought people, this might have been the greatest act of all. All the while, he was orchestrating bribes for jobs, contracts and contributions to his campaign fund. The FBI caught up with him after another decade in office. Following a conviction on one count of racketeering conspiracy, Buddy entered prison (or, as he cheekily put it, a “gated community”). In 2014, the lure of office was still strong enough that, even stricken with cancer, he ran again for mayor--and his act still beguiled enough people that this convicted felon received 45% of the vote.

While Philip Gourevitch’s retrospective in The New Yorker acknowledged that Buddy was “notoriously thuggish” and “one of America’s most thoroughly corrupt political personalities,” it ultimately disappoints with a wider, not very apropos comparison:

“Was he more corrupt—or more corrupting to our democratic ideals—than that other Republican turned independent mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who is said to be incorruptible because he is so stupefyingly rich, but who used his power to persuade the City Council to overrule two voter referendums in favor of term limits and have a third term at New York’s City Hall? Was he more corrupt than Rahm Emanuel, of Chicago, whose City Hall covered up the police killing of a young black man? Should we really leave our judgment of whom we call corrupt to our courts?”

The simplest response to these suggestions is that neither Bloomberg nor Emanuel, to our knowledge, conspired with others to commit physical assault. Moreover, if the temptation of power had proved so intoxicating in a secondary metro area like Providence, what might have Buddy done if he had run a successful campaign for governor in 1980, or even achieved his earlier ambition of becoming President?

“I love this city. It’s a very, very saddening thought to be separated from it,” Buddy told the Associated Press just before he left for prison.

Hmm…Colluding with city officials as part of a revenge plot against a private citizen…Turning City Hall into an electoral slot machine…Turning out not much better, really, than the gangsters and machine politicians he beat at the start of his road to power…Funny how Buddy went about proving his love.

Yeah, real funny guy, that Buddy was.