Adams and America

John Adams by Gilbert Stuart

I had wanted this post to be about a love story that I chanced upon recently. I had wanted it to be about the most enviable bond that the second president of the United States, John Adams, shared with Abigail, his wife of 54 years. I started thinking about it when I came across their correspondence when John had to be away from home, frequently and for considerable swaths of time, in service to their country, leaving Abigail to tend to the farm and their children. Oh they yearned to be with one another, finding each other’s absence as excruciating as they found each other’s company blissful. But Abigail knew that she had to learn to share her husband with the country they were trying to build, and she never put herself before what needed to be done.

In Congress first, and then across the pond in Europe, John’s skill and determination were needed everywhere, and patriot to the core, the man could never not oblige. This meant separation for the two for years on end, at a time when, as Abigail was to write, their children needed a father’s example. The sacrifices they made were tremendous and never lost on either of them, but their undying love for each other weathered every storm and stood the test of time and distance with uncommon strength and patience. Wrote John in his early years,

“Ballast is what I want. I totter with every breeze.”

In the years since, Abigail was to become his “ballast”, and he her “dearest friend”, through thick and thin and for as long as they lived. She was his confidante, and although she had never received a proper education, she was so well-read and so in tune with her husband’s own ideals, that she was also his greatest advisor, as he would tell his son and sixth president of the United States, John Quincy.

“You should look to your wife for the guidance you seek, not me. Your mother was my most faithful advisor. And the wisest.”

But it would be remiss of me to mention Adams the loving husband, and to say nothing of Adams the farmer, thinker, lawyer, legislator, orator, author, negotiator, ambassador – could a list of his roles ever be exhaustive or comprehensive? Nor would it do to produce a resume of all that he did, for to do so would be to ignore his exceptional character. Yes, he was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, orchestrated the American Revolution, served as America’s minister to France, the Netherlands and Great Britain, secured loans and naval support for his infant nation, drafted a peace treaty with the British, wrote the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, served as the first vice president under Washington, served as the second president of the United States, avoided war with France despite pressure from Congress and his Cabinet – again, what does one leave out and where does one stop?

And yet, do any of these accomplishments speak to his integrity as a man, his sincerity and simplicity (he grew tired of French niceties very quickly), his straightforwardness in speech, his passion for work, and his love of books, family and country? He was deeply introspective, even if that meant that he was given to ruminating and bouts of depression when faced with disappointment. A list of his achievements could hardly do him justice. So short of writing a full-fledged biography (and what could best McCullough’s rendition?), how does one talk about the man?

To me, Adams was the single most important Founding Father of the American project and one of the most preeminent figures in the American Revolution. From a rather early age, he had started developing his own ideas of what natural and inalienable rights looked and felt like like and what the role of government should be. So when the time came when American grievances precipitated the need to contemplate the state of affairs, Adams was convinced that only an irrevocable divorce from the British Empire would suffice. And once convinced, no one could shake him, not Mr. Dickinson of Pennsylvania, nor Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina, nor Mr. Duane of New York. He moved with the speed of a man who knew the urgency of his mission, nominating Washington to lead the Continental Army and Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration having been produced, he defended every word of it till the very end. It is then that he gave the most powerful and important speech heard in the Congress since its inception and the greatest of his life. Jefferson later remarked that Adams spoke “with a power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats,” – such was his skill. When two delegates joined the chamber an hour or so after Adams had begun and when they asked him to repeat what they had missed, he objected saying that he was no actor or performer. Yet, he relented and gave his speech a second time, and by the time he was done, he had been on his feet for two hours. He carried the American Revolution in the minds and hearts of Congress almost single-handedly. They say that if Jefferson was the pen of the Declaration, Adams was its voice.

The Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull. Upon seeing the painting for the first time, Adams reprimanded Trumbull for misrepresenting reality. During the summer of 1776, the delegates were in and out of Philadelphia, never all together at any point in time, as opposed to what the painting suggests.

For his country, he was willing to sacrifice everything. He never turned down an appointment, and lived through one frustration after another, never giving up. He suffered indignities at the hands of Franklin, the French Foreign Minister and even his own government back home. Even as Vice President, he swallowed hard and accepted his largely ceremonious role, bereft of the right to express his opinion to the Senate over which he presided, and left out of Washington’s inner circle. But he kept his head down and persisted.

But above all, he was a man of principle. When nobody in Boston would take the case of Captain Preston and his British troops, who had been charged with murder following what came to be known as the Boston Massacre, he stepped up, arguing that every individual must be afforded the right to legal counsel in a free country. He envisioned a country of laws, not men, and a courtroom led by reason and evidence and not passions. Then when his own son-in-law, Colonel Smith, wished for him to put in a word in government so that Smith could find employment, Adams declined saying that he found it unethical and little more than nepotism to use his name for said purpose. And finally, when Jefferson, on the cusp of becoming the third president of the United States, came to Adams to ask him to put in a word in Congress to break the deadlock between him and Aaron Burr for the presidency, Adams declined yet again, saying that it wasn’t his province to comment on the matter.

And he was a man of peace and reason, high above the “din of politics”. When all of Congress was clamoring for war with France with his own Cabinet bent on making it happen, he resisted. This was the same man who had wanted a divorce with Great Britain even if it meant war. Now he had to juggle Hamilton’s war-mongering and Jefferson’s blind denial of French intransigence. He knew full well that ignoring the calls of the nation would mean defeat at the next elections, as his own Cabinet reminded him. But he believed that peace was infinitely more important than who held the presidency. Party politics meant little to the man.

Of significant interest to me is the rich drama between Adams and Jefferson on the question of the proper arrangement of government. Jefferson, who believed in a weak central government found himself at odds with Adams, who believed in a strong central government, to the point that he was accused of being a monarchist. Whereas Jefferson held that the Union would stay quite intact even with a high level of state autonomy, going as far as to say that a central bank was unnecessary, Adams maintained that only a strong center could keep the Union from ripping asunder. Whatever their differences, the two men remained friends and correspondents till their death on the same day, July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years to the day of their Independence from Great Britain.

In the last year of his life, Adams said to Ralph Waldo Emerson,

“I would to God there were more ambition in the country. By that, I mean ambition of the laudable kind — to excel.”

And I can’t help but wonder about the kinds of things we could do if that kind of ambition, if that hunger for excellence, was common in the politics of today. Oh what an Adams in this day and age could do to rectify the problems we collectively face. Here was a man who saw “large things largely” and who never hesitated to state his opinion, even if his overt honesty and stubbornness were sometimes ill-suited to politics and diplomacy. There is so much one can learn by studying him, a man who never became as iconic as Franklin or Washington or Jefferson.

The HBO mini-series provide a most riveting account of the man’s life.

I was introduced to the subject by my dear friend Andrew Lantz, who got me hooked on the HBO mini-series. Two weeks ago, I picked up a copy of David McCullough’s book from a Half Price Books in Houston, Texas, on which the docudrama is based. A chapter in, I knew I had to watch the series again, and by this time, it’s price had halved on Amazon. It has been a real pleasure reading McCullough’s powerful and vivid account alongside the visual rendition of the story, which does the book more justice than the Harry Potter movies ever did to their own source texts. McCullough’s masterful book is a real tour de force that reads like a work of literature more than it does like a history book, every page building up suspense and begging to be turned. I highly recommend the book and the mini-series to anyone who wants to learn more about the birth of the United States. For if there was ever a man always in thick of it, and if there was ever a man who saw it all, it was John Adams.

Harry Potter and the Final Fiasco

Harry and the mother of all anti-climaxes

If you’re looking for yet more praise for the final installment of the “most successful movie franchise in the history of the Box Office”, you’d be better off visiting The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times or pretty much any mainstream channel that has so much of an opinion (and don’t we all?) on the latest Harry Potter movie.

Because you’re not going to find any of it here – not a lick. You see, what all those reviews have in common are vivid descriptions of the awe-inducing special effects, the vastly improved quality of acting, the humorous side of a time rife with darkness as an evil what’s-his-name wizard tries to kill his teenage nemesis on his way to establishing complete dominance, yada yada yada. But here’s the problem, and it’s a considerable problem: nobody seems to have the read the bloody book!

Why are there so many snatchers in the Battle of Hogwarts? Where are Bane and the centaurs and Kreacher and the house-elves? How the heck does Draco apparate right into the Castle, when anybody who’s familiar with Bathilda Bagshot’s A History of Magic knows that you simply can’t apparate or disapparate inside Hogwarts? So how are the Death Eaters able to do it (upon discovering that the Boy Who Lived lives on), and more importantly, why are they disapparating? Why does Voldemort slit Snape’s throat before letting Nagini finish him off (I mean, this is Lord fucking Voldemort – he doesn’t just wound the people he wants dead) and why is Dumbledore priding himself on the fact that he can turn a phrase (“help will always be given to those at Hogwarts who deserve it”)? Why does Voldemort back up on the ledge with a mortified look on his face as Harry corners him and why do they cuddle as they fall? Why do they fall at all? Why is Neville making a bloody speech when he’s supposed to be pulling the Sword of Gryffindor from the depths of the Sorting Hat? And why does he not kill Nagini as he’s supposed to, right as Harry, pretending to be dead, jumps down from Hagrid’s arms, right as the Death Eaters break ranks taking cover from the centaurs’ attack? In short, WHY DON’T THE CHARACTERS JUST DO WHAT THEY’RE BLOODY SUPPOSED TO?

It doesn’t end here. Crabbe has somehow miraculously turned into Blaise Zabini, who makes an appearance as Draco squares off against Harry in the Room of Requirement. And for some odd reason Bellatrix must die in style, breaking down and evaporating having been hit by Mrs. Weasley’s Killing Curse (yep, the same Killing Curse that leaves the bodies of Lupin and Tonks and Fred quite intact, thank you very much).

I guess, to be fair, Jaime Waylett couldn't make it to set for a very valid reason. He's in jail for growing cannabis in his mum's house. Imbecile.

Voldemort also meets the same fate, disintegrating into a gazillion pieces and then being taken up by the atmosphere. The final battle that culminates in that conclusion is equally as disappointing. Whereas in the book, Harry fights Voldemort in front of a crowd of his people, explaining the Elder Wand’s journey and Snape’s role as a double agent for the Order, the movie puts him and his prophesy-bound archenemy in a desolate courtyard, in a scene devoid of dialogue, to finish Voldemort off with nobody to witness it. What a travesty.

But that’s not the end of it! Beyond what the movie does and does not do, there are numerous opportunities that it simply passes on. There is absolutely no character development of Ginny Weasley and and no mention of Lupin’s son and Harry’s godson, Teddy. And if they wanted to show some snogging action (and oh boy, they did), why not show Teddy and Victoire getting it on? And if they wanted to throw in humor, why not show James telling his mother that he can’t just walk into Herbology and give Professor Longbottom love? And where in the world is the tension between Slughorn and McGonagall, when she threatens him with a duel if he doesn’t pick the right side? Where are the Gryffindors, Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws rising from their seats to face Parkinson as she calls on her peers to surrender Harry? Oh, what rich moments of drama to squander!

You can say that director David Yates has produced his interpretation of the text and so it’s quite alright if the movie deviates from Rowling’s work. You can say that, but no, it’s not quite alright. When I go to see a movie based on a book, I expect to see the author’s intentions conveyed as accurately as possible, because that’s what made the book so incredibly amazing in the first place. I can’t give two shits as to what the director’s re-imagining of the original looks like because that’s not what I fell in love with and came to see!

Essentially, this movie is a distaster and a sell-out. In order to make it accessible to a wider audience (in other words, for idiots who’ve never read the books), the movie takes on a tone that the text would never recognize. For instance, when on the big screen McGonagall brings the school statues to life to protect Hogwarts, she can’t help but find the situation curiously humorous and turning into a giggly teenage girl offers in an aside, “I’ve always wanted to use that spell.” Excuse me? This happens to be the Battle of fucking Hogwarts and you’re Minerva fucking McGonagall. You keep your shit together. This was not in the book because Rowling is writing about death and destruction and not about the Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes AND SO IT’S NOT SUPPOSED TO BE FUNNY!

In a similar vein, the reason Alan Rickman has to stupidly remark, “You have your mother’s eyes,” is so that posers and dimwits in the audience may understand the context of the only line that needed uttering: “Look at me.” Oh. My. God.

You can say that I’m being unnecessarily unreasonable and a stickler for details, and frankly, you’d be right. But you see I cannot for the life of me understand how ANYONE can call themselves oh-just-the-biggest-fan, as we well know each of us is (innit?), and not take offense at the butchered final product that the world seems to have blindly and happily embraced. The movie is a desecration of the text, an audacious high-seas piracy of the original form and content. How “true fans” of the series can ignore such blatant disregard for the details is beyond me.

You can also say that putting in all those details would have taken up too much time, and you’d be wrong. I can’t imagine how it would take any longer to have a crowd in the background watching Harry kill off Voldemort. And Yates could easily have cut out the bromantic rollercoaster ride that Voldemort and Harry take before crashing in some obscure and deserted courtyard for the all-important final duel. So yes, those details could quite readily have been accommodated, no problem. They simply chose to do it this way!

And am I the only one who cares? Not at all. People lost their shit when at the end of the first part of the seventh movie, the epitaph, “Here Lies Dobby, a Free Elf,” did not appear on his tombstone. We care for the details because we are loyal to the text and not only to its “overall message” or “essence”, whatever that means. Do the diehards care that Voldemort, right as he is about to kill Harry in the Forest, does not, in the movie, tilt his head to a side, “like a curious child, wondering what would happen if he proceeded”? You bet your ass they do!

It doesn’t matter in the end. This movie has done a number at the Box Office and has left stupid audiences oo-ing and aah-ing. It will go down as a “fitting end” to a most lucrative franchise, having made everyone real fucking happy. Personally, however, I’m extremely bitter and immensely disappointed. To my mind, Yates has gotten away with murder and no, I don’t give a shit as to what Rotten Tomatoes thinks of the catastrophe or this indictment.

Just Another Blog?

You betcha. All of us have opinions and usually on a wide range of topics. This blog then is no different from the thousands that already exist. Anything under the sun that I find of interest is kosher and if it merits comment, it will make its way on here. In other words, just the way most blogs out there function.

Are there subjects that have a higher propensity in terms of making an appearance? Sure. I have a natural proclivity for topics of a political nature and so they will probably predominate, complemented by a smattering of history and religion and a serving or two of arts and entertainment.

But is this blog unique? Perhaps, perhaps not. The words and images you will find here are a reflection of the world as seen through my eyes. To concur or discard then is your prerogative and it is my hope you will share your position in frank and liberal fashion. Those of you after my own heart will find yourselves in agreement, while many of you will be put off and possibly even offended. Read, comment, and if you’re triggered either way, tell your friends.

Here we go.