Sunday, January 30, 2011

Thomas Jefferson's Karma

Thomas Jefferson & Mistress Sally Hemings
Thomas Jefferson had always fascinated me, as a historian. I was, thus, all the more puzzled when America’s top biographers of Thomas Jefferson turned out to be, according to Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, “the last to know” that their subject had secretly fathered a child with his slave mistress, Sally Hemings. As Prof. Gordon-Reed points out in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, the “spirited denials” among America’s top scholars of Thomas Jefferson represented:

. . . the unfortunate human tendency to see only the things we want to see and to know only those things we want to know. This tendency has served no good purpose in the struggle to come to terms with American history.
While historians often assert that their discipline is dependent on the existence of documentation, even that requirement can fade into obscurity should it fail to validate the researcher’s own thesis. For example, the unequivocal observations of Sally Hemings third son, Madison, were merely overlooked by historians assured that Jefferson was far too busy leading a life of the mind than to satisfy the yearnings of his body:

Their stay (my Mother and Maria’s) was about eighteen months. But during that time my Mother became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine, and when he was called home she was enceinte [pregnant] by him.

Perhaps though, it would be an even larger and more egregious error for us to scapegoat scholars for such mistakes, when our society, itself, has from the time of our nation’s founding dictated that the reward structures of the liberal arts profession be pegged to our own needs for self-validation. All too often scholarly decisions and research dollars follow the demands of the societal audience for such “knowledge”. Until just recently, no mainstream American scholar would have dared suggest that Thomas Jefferson had fathered a slave child, however overwhelming the evidence, for the simple self-censuring reason that so disagreeable an interpretation of this founding father would have proved far too costly, psychologically, emotionally, professionally. Such anti-establishment musings would have been left to the intellectual “crackpots”, gadflies and marginal scholars presumably harboring political agendas. Prof. Gordon-Reed, on the other hand, exhibited the courage to assert a contrary view at a moment in time when the American public was ready to entertain a more “postmodern”, less deified and de-frocked understanding of the founding fathers. This readiness may sometimes become a corrective leading to truth. But it is typically something more ominous. There is a deep and ugly self-derision at the core of America’s sense of itself, a veritable Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde nightmare. Its understanding of history swings from naïve idealism to profound cynicism, with neither pole nor the process itself particularly committed to honoring reality or clarity of vision. Nor is this swing of the pendulum a healthy intellectual self-corrective. This process invariably begins with an unreal deification of a historical leader and inevitably ends in a self-flagellating intellectual orgy of cynicism, where the personage is exposed as a veritable hypocrite and reprobate.

Validity Claims

Who was Thomas Jefferson, really? There have been such an array of biographies written of this renowned personage, that we could easily bite into and discard, like a gift box of assorted Godiva chocolates, whichever version of the man’s biography failed to suit our particular cultural, social or political tastes. But is it truly possible to penetrate beneath such manipulation of data and its contradicting interpretations to know “the truth”? I believe, contrary to the dictates of cultural relativism, that as members of the same human family, when all is said and done, we do share the same core, the same reality, the same ineffable essence of soul. The challenge, then, becomes one of learning to remove the layers of cultural conditioning and ego-cemtered illusions, which mislead us into thinking and believing otherwise.

It is in this context that transpersonal philosopher, Ken Wilber, offers a simple but ingenuous methodology for approaching this dilemma of verification in our perennial search for truth. He terms the ways in which interior and empirical kinds of knowledge check one another “validity claims:

The validity claims force us to confront reality; they curb our egoic fantasies and self-centered ways; they demand evidence from the rest of the Kosmos; they force us outside of ourselves! They are the checks and balances in the Kosmic Constitution.

But alas, do we genuinely want to know about the real Thomas Jefferson? Do we really want to know about the real anybody or anything, for that matter? Or do we convince ourselves that we seek pure knowledge when our primary interest is in seeking only that information that will validate our own positions and self-perceptions? We would do well to contemplate that question deeply before employing serious tools for verification. For, we will be as easily misled had we affixed our self-perception to a deified version of Jefferson, as we would have been in harboring a victimized self-image. The latter perception of self would, contrary to the former, demand that this man become a pure, unrepentant slaveholding tyrant and hypocrite.

Because many scholars and non-scholars alike within our society, fail to cultivate sufficient awareness of their bodily sensations, to recognize anxiety as it arises, it becomes very difficult indeed to identify the moment at which incoming information begins to conflict with a constructed self-perception. But it is at this very moment when we will silently, unconsciously, but unflintingly demand of our powers of reason, a sugar-coating of this uncomfortable, anxiety-provoking new information, thus transforming it into self-deceptive rationalizations.

The good news, however, is that we can indeed penetrate our tendency toward self-deception by applying the “validity claims” process to a genuine understanding of Thomas Jefferson or anyone else for that matter. What vested interest might I (quadrant I) as an individual have in seeing Jefferson in a particular way? It might be a question of furthering my academic ambitions to laud him or contrarily feathering my political nest amidst an entirely different audience to assume the worse about the character of this man. The more my interpretation matches that of an interested public, the more popular will be my research findings. Conversely, the more my interpretation antagonizes a public perception, the less material benefit will accrue to me by pursuing a particular interpretation, unless I can find a minority audience for such ideas. In like regard, if I see myself as a victim, the feeding of a victim’s self-image will be just as demanding as that of a victimizer. Until I can come to grips with the ways in which my acknowledged curiosity might be influenced by unacknowledged emotional goals, I will in all likelihood deny, filter or subject the empirical data to spurious conclusions and interpretations.

In this exploration, we might then proceed to ask ourselves, what vested interest might society (quadrant III) have in perceiving of Jefferson in a particular light? What if Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers represent an unspoken part of our culture’s secular religion? Quadrant II, on the other hand, might represent the empirical evidence, DNA testing undertaken by a scientist, who draws certain conclusions. Quadrant IV might in this particular case illumine the research questions that foundations and other research funding agencies are willing to support the finding of answers to.

It is impossible to look at empirical information objectively, when we are harboring suppressed emotional or psychological investments in having the outcome appear in a different way. Or we might choose not to investigate at all. Our research institutions will simply not fund work, whose conclusions we are not prepared to accept. In like manner, we can gain an empirical answer and then distort the nature of the question, so that it’s interpretation will prove misleading.

Our empirical understanding of the world is incomplete if we have not developed tools for exploring interior knowledge. That is, I must learn to examine my own motives and I must also learn to explore the shared motives of the community in which I belong. Why? If I do not bring some modicum of self-knowledge to the investigation, I will only ask the question whose answer offers me the self-validation I have unconsciously sought. In like regard, interior knowledge, can mislead us if we lack the scientific tools to empirically verify our premises. If I lacked skill in knowing myself, and gauging my true motives, I will concomitantly lack skill in being able to give an objective interpretation to the empirical data that I collect. Or as Wilber points out: “Because I lie to myself—and then forget it is a lie—then I will lie to you without even knowing it. This was as true of Thomas Jefferson as it is for us today

What is sorely missing from the liberal arts establishment today, as it was two hundred years ago is a more sophisticated, all-encompassing system of verification procedures. We expect that scholarly debate will make up for our inattention to individual exploration of self. However, there are real flaws in this approach. Firstly, it fosters anger and hostility, and scholars attack one another, often viciously and build elaborate intellectual defenses to hide their vulnerabilities. But secondly, should those scholars share the same cultural or emotional needs for validation, their argumentation will simply not penetrate their culturally shared self-deceptions.

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