Jeffrey Rosen makes things worse: Over the past three or four decades, a tired old myth had come to an end.
We refer to the myth of the rational animal. In popular mythology, it started with Aristotle!
Are we humans really "the rational animal?" As the term is commonly understood, were we ever any such thing?
Chris Matthews, and our acceptance of same, helped demolish this silly old claim. So has Alexis Coe's new book, You Never Forget Your First.
Coe book lays waste to that tired old myth. And, Within a matter of weeks, this gong-show involved Jeffrey Rosen!
Is it a good thing when it doesn't even occur to major journalists to fact-check claims in a book? When it doesn't occur to major journalists to fact-check sexualized insults which form the heart of a book?
When it doesn't occur to journalists to fact-check claims which same a bit weird on their face? When professors show up in the Sunday Washington Post betraying the same approach?
Actually no, it isn't a good thing when our journalists and our professors conduct themselves in this manner. But that's the way these groups have behaved for the past thirty or forty years—and where does a culture like that end up?
Consider what Coe wrote in her ridiculous best-selling book. Also, consider Jeffrey Rosen.
Quick overview—Coe is the type of person who attracts attention by cutting-and-pasting material off web sites, then jacking her pointless material up with trendy sexual insults.
In fairness, this has been going on for decades. According to the major anthropologists with whom we consult, Coe has taken this practice to a point where her work is being described, in the future, as a leading example of "second-wave Dowdism."
In her utterly ludicrous book, Coe invents a bunch of indefensible claims about a group of male historians. She insultingly describes them as "the Thigh Men," dragging the phrase all through her book.
We've been discussing those claims all week. They involve the way these heinous, "hinky" historians are alleged to have treated Washington's teeth, but also his manly thighs.
Already, this has taken us to The Land Rational Conduct Forgot. Today, let's consider what happened when Coe discussed whether George Washington ever shtupped anyone who wasn't his wife.
Did George shtup someone who wasn't Martha? Coe restricts her pseudo-discussion of this question to a single boxed paragraph which occupies most of page 29. Below, we'll show you the way she "reasons."
Then, we'll turn to Rosen.
Did Washington ever shtup somebody else? The boxed passage starts like this:
COE (page 29): "HEAVING THROBBING ALLURING"People like Coe tend to start out slow. As she continues, Washington seems to remain on the right side of history:
Washington wrote when he was fifty-four that "there is moral certainty of my dying without issue." He left nothing behind to indicate anything to the contrary (possibly because he was sterile), and if he had premarital sex, (or, later, extramarital sex), there's almost nothing in the archives to imply it.
COE (continuing directly): A letter from George Mercer, a surveyor and an officer in the Virginia militia, suggests that sex wasn't something young Washington deigned to discuss. In 1757 [when Washington was 25], Mercer reported that the women in South Carolina had a "bad shape," and that "many of them are crooked & have a very bad Air & not those enticing heaving throbbing alluring Letch exciting plump Breasts common with our Northern Belles." Yet he acknowledged that this sort of coarse talk was sure to have "tired your Patience." It seems he was right; Washington didn't respond.How does Coe know that Washington didn't respond? The question doesn't get answered.
At any rate, Coe says this letter suggests that Washington didn't go for that locker-room talk. Rightly or wrongly, it isn't clear how this sheds light on the question at hand—whether Washington ever shtupped someone who wasn't his wife.
At this point, Coe was still playing nice. But as she finishes her special boxed passage, she reaches her destination.
Did Washington ever shtup someone else? We don't have the slightest idea! But Coe was now swimming for shore—and she was soon on the beach, panting hard:
COE (continuing directly): Another letter, from officer William La Peronie, provides some evidence that Washington did have premarital sex. Four years before he and Martha wed, La Peronie imagined him "plung'd in the midst of dellight heaven can aford & enchanted By Charms even stranger to the Ciprian Dame (+M's Nel)." "Ciprian Dame" was eighteenth-century-speak for a sex worker, but she may have been a barmaid or mistress or a slave. It is therefore possible that Washington had a sexual relationship with a women other than Martha, and that possibility includes nonconsensual sex with an enslaved woman.For the record, we're back in September 1754 when this letter is sent to Washington. Washington was 22 and a half. We aren't told if he responded.
At any rate, how about it? Is it possible "that Washington had a sexual relationship with a women other than Martha?" Does that possibility "include nonconsensual sex with an enslaved woman?"
Is it possible that such conduct occurred? Of course it is—everything's possible! That said, the way Coe gets from Point A to Point D is one for future anthropologists' post-the-myth-of-the-animal books.
The logic of this third chunk is strikingly jumbled. Midway through, the logic is too jumbled to bother unpacking.
We encourage you to consider the way Coe is able to derive "some evidence" from something she says La Peronie "imagined." From there, she races ahead to "nonconsensual sex with an enslaved woman" for an obvious reason:
She does so because contemporary tribal narrative demands it. People like Coe can attract attention only in such ways.
Is it possible that Washington engaged in "nonconsensual sex with an enslaved woman?" Of course it is! Everything is possible, and everything always will be!
That said, Coe makes no attempt, at any point in her book, to discuss the likelihood of this possibility. She doesn't discuss what others may have said, or offer evidence on her own. We'll spare you the end note she includes to the passage we've just posted, though it advances the "verdict first, trial later" logic she seems to enjoy.
For what it's worth, we'll guess that Coe was borrowing earlier work by one of the Thigh Men when she assembled this tangy passage. We refer to the late John Richard Alden (1908-1991), who devoted two paragraphs to those same two letters in his 1984 book, George Washington: A Biography.
For Alden's musings, click here. See the two short paragraphs which end a chapter on pages 31-32.
Having fact-checked Coe for a while, she strikes us as a bit of a borrower. But she put those two letters to wonderful service, even if her logic may have flagged by the time she was through.
People like Coe play the game in such ways. Our journalists and our professors then excitedly swing into action, reciting all tribally-approved claims and insinuations.
In last Sunday's Washington Post, Professor Kars disappeared the crazier parts of Coe's book while repeating sexually insulting claims which are plainly insupportable.
This is the way our guardian class has functioned over the past forty years. But then, along came Jeffrey Rosen to embellish what even Coe had said!
Rosen is regarded as a high-end pundit and scholar. Since 2013, he has served as the president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, a major nonprofit, nonpartisan institution which was created by the Constitution Heritage Act in 1988.
Rosen sits at the scholarly, PBS end of the pile. It's possible that he doesn't want to be fingered as a Thigh Man.
Alexis Coe's ridiculous book had only been out a few weeks. But during a taping of his weekly podcast, Rosen offered this embellished book report to Lindsay Chervinsky, a youngish historian:
ROSEN (2/20/20): Lindsay, how well did Washington uphold [his] values in his personal life? There's a new biography of Washington by Alexis Coe. It's been described as "a life in full, without sentiment or whitewashing"—basically describes not only his moral failings in his slaveholding, but also claims that he's been made into a demigod, and noting that he likely engaged in premarital sex—nonconsensual sex—with an enslaved woman, it's quite a strong indictment of his failings. So how can you describe how well he upheld his high ideals in practice, and what do you make of this recent revisionist case against Washington's honor?To hear Rosen's statement, click here. Move ahead to the 16-minute mark. That said:
Has Coe's book been described as "a life in full, without sentiment or whitewashing?"
Yes it has, by Irin Carmon, in a blurb on the book's dust jacket. But if Coe's book doesn't offer sentiment or whitewashing, it also doesn't do this:
It doesn't "note that Washington likely engaged in premarital sex—nonconsensual sex—with an enslaved woman."
Coe's book does a lot of things. But no, it doesn't do that!
Chervinsky didn't challenge Rosen's statement as she responded to what he said. We don't know if she'd ever heard of Coe's exciting new book.
That said, someone broke every rule in the book—someone apparently fact-checked! You can see this humble "correction" on the podcast's web site:
Correction: In this episode, Jeff mistakenly said that Alexis Coe’s book You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington includes a claim that Washington “likely engaged in premarital sex—nonconsensual sex—with an enslaved woman.” Instead, Coe actually quotes a letter written about Washington that describes his possible premarital sex with a “Cirprian [sic] Dame,” and explains what that term might have meant.Even as they pen this "correction," Rosen's staffers continue to overstate what Coe actually said and presented. But this is the way these "rational animals" have persistently worked, dating back decades now.
Where do we get these people? Where does their conduct come from?
Despondent anthropologists say this is simply the way we were always wired. We were wired to reproduce and embellish tribal claims, accurate or not.
Within our own failing society, this has gone on for decades. Sexualized insult is often employed as the most pleasing element in a nasty tribal tale.
So it was that one top pundit after another said that Candidate Gore had "hired a women to teach him how to be a man." (Matthews: Gore was "today's man-woman.")
So it was that Maureen Dowd kept assembling her insults about Candidate Obama ("the diffident debutante") and about Candidate Edwards ("the Breck Girl)." Soooo much enjoyment and fun!
The other pundits sat and watched, or they simply joined in. The professors, such as they were and are, simply stared into the air.
They did the same as Matthews kept calling Hillary Clinton "Nurse Ratched," along with a host of other such gender-based insults. This is what these defectives did on this nation's long road to Trump.
It's been a long time since the nation's journalists fact-checked claims which are tribally pleasing. It's no longer part of our culture. Consider one last example:
Coe's book is nutty on its face, but please don't tell the press corps. On the highest levels, they spend their time in makeup and hair, but also in their "showmanship" lessons, and of course at their cocktail parties. (We're quoting Chris Hayes.)
When Coe's book arrived, it was full of insulting sexualized claims which seemed highly improbable. Instead of checking those startling claims, the children got into line.
As with Kars, so with the others. They took turns praising Coe's brilliant work while repeating her bogus statements.
On February 16, an excited young scribe at the Washington Post excitedly wrote about Coe. Novelization was running wild. The headlines in question say this:
George Washington gets romanticized by male biographers. Now a woman has taken him on.So cool! Alexis Coe was so daring and bold that she had attacked the male gaze!
Alexis Coe argues in “You Never Forget Your First” that the male gaze has distorted our impressions of the first president.
You can read the whole thing yourself. The writer even attacks the myth about Washington chopping down the cherry tree.
We'll direct you to this point—to a claim about biographer Ron Chernow and George Washington's mother:
BROCKELL (2/16/20): Most male biographers write little about his mother, Mary Ball Washington. When they do mention her, she’s described as an uncouth, illiterate shrew who tried to control, and often embarrassed, her distinguished son. (See: Chernow, Ron.)"(See: Chernow, Ron.)," the journalist actually wrote. She linked to the Amazon page for for his Pulitzer-winning biography.
But when Coe looked for primary sources to back this up, she said the evidence just wasn’t there. Chernow, who won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for his much praised biography “Washington: A Life,” referenced secondhand sources who referenced other secondhand sources, she maintains. (Chernow did not respond to an email seeking comment.)
In fact, Mary wasn’t illiterate; there are letters written in her hand.
Question: Did she check to see what the biography actually says? Did it occur to her that she might be getting played by Coe?
Did the journalist check to see what Chernow's biography says? This is Chernow's first passage about Mary Ball, later Mary Ball Washington, George Washington's mother:
CHERNOW (page 5): Lonesome at fifty-eight, [Mary Ball's widowed father] shocked propriety and threatened his children's inheritance by wedding an illiterate woman named Mary Johnson. Their daughter, Mary Ball, was only three when he elderly father died...The girl was farmed out to an obliging family friend, George Eskridge, who treated her so humanely that she would honor his memory by naming her first son George after him. It was probably Eskridge who acted as go-between in matching up Mary and Augustine Washington.As you can see, Chernow mentions those letters by Washington's mother—the very letters the young Post journalist used to prove that he was wrong in saying that she was illiterate.
A crusty woman with a stubborn streak, Mary Ball Washington made few concessions to social convention. In a lesson internalized by her celebrated son, she didn't adapt or bend easily to others but stayed resolutely true to her own standards. We can only assume that her forlorn childhood, characterized by constant loss, left innumerable scars and insecurities...Since her own mother was illiterate, Mary probably received scant education. Her few letters are replete with spelling errors, dispense with all grammar and punctuation, and confirm the impression of an unlettered country women.
On page five, he says that Mary Ball's mother was illiterate, then mentions the letters Ball wrote.
In attacking the heinous Chernow, the young journalist cited evidence which appears on page five of his own book! So it goes when the modern journalist is handed a tribally pleasing narrative, perhaps by someone like Coe.
The word "thigh" barely appears in the Thigh Men's books. So it goes with the latest outburst from our dimwitted, failing tribe. So it goes when a very strange person takes aim on the Thigh Men.
We'll soon be moving on from the work of our utterly hopeless press corps. We'll be discussing what happened when we were granted entrance, at age 17, to The Rational Animal's Lair.
We took Professor Nozick's class first. Did a myth start to die right there?