Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
John and Tom’s Excellent Adventure: On John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Travel, and the Meaning of an Education
On April 4, 1786, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson set off on a road trip together.
Both in England from which their America had freshly won its independence, the object of their tour was — as dull as it sounds to me — a series of English gardens. Instead of Lonely Planet or even a Baedeker, their guide book was Jefferson’s copy of Observations on Modern Gardening by one Thomas Whately.
As David McCullough recounts in his excellent John Adams, the road trip had no great historical significance. But it was “the one and the only time” when the famous frenemies, the "North and South Poles of the American Revolution,” would spend “off on their own together.” And, perhaps given my circumstances on the road, I can’t help dwelling on this image of the two Great Men driving around the English countryside, John and Tom, just a couple of dudes, a couple of American tourists.
First of all, spoiler alert, I’m fine.
My Uber driver picked me up in Mission Valley to go up to La Jolla for my friend Marina’s wedding. His name was Sohrab, an immigrant from Iran who arrived in the US only a year earlier.
I said I’d been to Iran, and we exchanged a few words in Farsi, which made him perk up. Not that he needed to perk up — the man, 40 or so, his eyes behind shades, was all smiles and with a spirit so high that one might have wondered what he was on. He was originally from the southeastern desert city of Kerman before moving to Tehran, where he worked as an engineer for 17 years. He was still learning English, he said, although we had little trouble communicating. His cousin and brother-in-law had come to Southern California before him, and now he had brought his wife and nine-year-old son. The car was new, one week since he drove it off the lot. Indeed I had noticed that new car smell when I first got in. And this was his first time driving a passenger as an Uber driver.
After all the horror stories I’d heard in the last few months about people getting detained trying to enter the US or having their visas revoked on arrival, I worried that I might run into problems myself.
After all, I have some pretty colorful stamps in my passport: Iran, Afghanistan, and a whole lot of Arabic lettering. The US consulate in Rio de Janeiro had granted me a visa, after a moment of hesitation. But that didn’t mean that Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, a separate agency, had to honor the State Department’s decision.
A few weeks ago I was in Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina. Fin del Mundo, they call it, the End of the World. Ushuaia’s geographical location meant that it was, and still is, an Argentine naval base. As such it played a suitably significant role in the Falklands War of 1982, or Guerra de las Malvinas to the Argentines. So much so that a memorial to the Argentine war dead stands in the middle of the city.
And the Falklands War remains one of the purest and most obvious examples of wagging the dog—the term from the 1997 comedy has by now entered common English usage—of a government bumbling into war against a foreign “enemy” for no better reason than to distract its own citizens from problems at home.
The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges had an even better epithet for the pointless war: It was “a fight between two bald men over a comb.”
In 1893, a 32-year-old historian, later of Harvard, presented a paper at a meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago. His name was Frederick Jackson Turner, and the paper was called “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” The essay turned out to be a seminal one. The “Frontier Thesis,” in which American society is thought to have been shaped by the existence of, and its confrontation with, the frontier became a key concept in the study of American history.
In 2017, the Frontier Thesis is once again full of implications.
On the one hand, Turner’s formulation of the concept of the American frontier is nothing short of racist: “the frontier is the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” The crude dichotomy of US and THEM no doubt captured the thinking of many 19th settlers uneasy about native nations just beyond the frontier. And today it seems to capture the thinking of just as high a proportion of Americans with respect to the outside world.
Now Trump has proclaimed America’s institutional press “enemy of the American people,” using that Bolshevik term that Lenin had used. He ought to say it in Russian, vrag naroda, so that his boss Vladimir can hear him clearly.
But freedom of the press is as American as apple pie. It predates even the founding of the Republic. Indeed, Mar-a-Lago’s war on the media reminds me of the first major test case of press freedom in the Thirteen Colonies, that of John Peter Zenger.
Like Donald’s grandfather Friedrich, Zenger was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States at a young age. Friedrich was 16; John Peter was 13 in 1710 when his family arrived in New York. The government of the colony of New York, in a time more welcoming to immigrants, arranged apprenticeships for all the immigrant children. So it was that teenaged Zenger found himself apprenticed to William Bradford, the first of New York’s printers. Eventually Zenger followed Bradford’s footsteps and became a printer in his own right.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."