Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Good Son

One needs to look no further than the words of John Quincy Adams to see what degradation American politics has endured from his time to ours. The Adamses were the country's first political dynasty; JQA was the first, and only, President's son to also take the office -- until George W. Bush (Benjamin Harrison was a grandson of a President). The Adamses weren't good (small d) democrats by any stretch of the imagination, but neither were they kleptocrats like the Bushes, and the Adamses took seriously, even idealistically, the responsibilities of honest public service, they had a real sense of noblesse oblige.

True, there was a bit of snobbery in them, they thought their kind was most worthy, but they didn't enter public service simply to enrich their class. Put another way, they had consciences. Also, they had something to be snobby about. They were intelligent, endlessly curious about the world; and if they were a bit overbearing, this negative trait is mitigated by the fact that they were harder on themselves than on anyone else. Contrast this, of course, to the vapidity and crassness of our current ruler, who is a canting hack where the Adamses were genuine moralists.

Though some would argue that JQA was a free-trader and a bit of a hegemon when it came to Latin America, any comparisions to modern freetraders and imperialists break down when one considers JQA's positions were not so ideological as all that: his positions were a reaction to British meddling in the same region. And his positions were consistent: hence the Monroe Doctrine, which was actually JQA's (Monroe's Secretary of State) geopolitical baby, and which was nullified forever by American participation in WWI. Needless to say, our downhill slide has accelerated since then.

JQA was for big government; in his era the slogan was "internal improvements":

The great object of the institution of civil government is the improvement of the condition of those who are parties to the social compact, and no government in whatever form constituted, can accomplish the lawful ends of its institutions but in proportion as it improves the condition of those over whom it is established.

This is distinctly against the libertarian-Republican "government is evil" mindset, as well as against the neoliberal belief that the welfare of American citizens must be subservient to economic dogma.

I pretty much knew this about Adams. What has surprised me, though, is that he wasn't so much the credulous Puritan I'd thought; on the contrary, there's a lot of admirable skepticism in him, and he apparently didn't officially join the church until late middle age, during his Presidency, and around the time of his father's death:

The miracles in the Bible furnish the most powerful of all arguments against its authenticity, both historical and doctrinal; and were it possible to take its sublime morals, its unparalleled conceptions of the nature of God, and its irresistable power over the heart, with the simple life and death narrative of Jesus, stripped of all the supernatural agency and all the marvellous incidents connected with it, I should receive it without any of those misgivings of unwilling incredulity as to the miracles, which I find it impossible altogether to cast off.

Amistad is a great movie, not because it is literal history (it is not), nor because it is a nuanced drama (ditto), but because of its portrayal of the heroic character of Cinque and because of the performance Anthony Hopkins gives in it as JQA. Physically, Hopkins is perfect save that he isn't quite as plump as JQA and he ignores the fact that the former President had a condition which made his eyes constantly water. But Hopkins does great justice to JQA's character: he is, rightly, gruff, severe, distracted, disinterested, principled. His character is that of a man who knows he is an heir yet also a relic; who knows that he, despite being regarded as a failed President, but because of his lineage, has unique credibility in speaking in the voice of the Founders. The performance is beautiful; the closing speech is among the most affecting I've ever heard in a movie.