Have Yourself a Merry Little Syphilis

Kristin Devine

Kristin has humbly retired as Ordinary Times' friendly neighborhood political whipping girl to focus on culture and gender issues. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of https://atomicfeminist.com/

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12 Responses

  1. Em Carpenter says:

    Beautifully written Kristin! And an equally beautiful sentiment.
    One thing I am compelled to point out: The issue with Thomas Jefferson is not that he might have gotten laid. It’s that he was having sex with a woman he kept in slavery.Report

    • I get that, and I am of course obviously stretching the bounds of good taste in several ways in this piece.

      People are like fish, they live in a fishbowl and can’t see the water, let alone the glass outside or the room the fishbowl is sitting in. I don’t think it’s fair to hold people who were living in a world with a monstrous system that they’d been raised under and probably saw as a necessary evil (sort of the point of these two pieces on this subject) with the same stringency as we do people in the here and now. It’s as true even if the stuff they did was pretty damn bad by our modern day standards. We inherit these terrible systems and it’s part of the nature of evil that we don’t even SEE them because they’ve just been there for our entire lives. Even someone like Jefferson didn’t see them the way we do now. He couldn’t have, he was in the fishbowl.

      It is in no way a defense of slavery or a minimalization of it, in fact, quite the opposite. It would have been easy for me to omit that little bit (and trust me, I really considered it) and make this a kinder and fluffier bit where we really didn’t have to think about Actual Bad Guys as much, but I really wanted people to stare it in the face.

      As Chip points out, all of us in the here and now are complicit in a lot of economic systems that are causing human beings in other parts of the globe incredible suffering, and we think nothing of them. I buy Nestle. I let my son get Nike eyeglasses. I shop at WalMart. I am very well aware America has sent its pollution to poor countries for decades and it poisoned children and ended up dumped in the ocean. All these things are problematic, possibly even more problematic than Jefferson and Hemings, and I do them and I don’t even think about them. Some would say eating meat and enslaving animals as pets is problematic and will someday be looked back upon as barbaric. In my own lifetime a surprising number of people thought the age of sexual consent for children should be at an age so young that we (only a few decades later) would be utterly horrified by it. Morality evolves over time and it’s very, very likely that the people of the future will look back on us the way we look at Jefferson now.

      I find that sometimes (ok most times) by using humor I’m able to sneak in places where preaching would be disregarded, if that makes sense. So my seemingly clueless joke was meant to be in service to a larger point there. Apologies if I could have done it more tastefully, but I did my best not to pull my punches and shy away from controversy in an attempt to avoid getting blasted.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, allowing me to flesh out my thoughts.Report

      • Em Carpenter in reply to Kristin Devine says:

        I appreciate your response, and I really didn’t think you were blind to the issues with that line but I, being me, couldn’t let it go unchallenged.
        You’ve argued this sort of moral relativism before and to some extent I agree. Some things, though, I have a harder time buying that folks from the days of yore didn’t know it was wrong. Slavery is one. Oddly though, the idea that Jefferson may have believed he could have a consensual relationship with her is easier to believe than that he thought enslaving humans was ok.Report

    • Dark Matter in reply to Em Carpenter says:

      Great One Kristin!

      It’s that he was having sex with a woman he kept in slavery.

      Given history this is a weird objection for us-right-now to have.

      Sally Hemings was his dead wife’s half sister, was 3/4ths White, went with Jefferson to a free Country in Europe where she could have freed herself and then willingly went back with him, and her/their children either escaped (these were the only escapes from his place) apparently with him looking the other way or actively helping, or were freed in his will.

      We don’t have perfect records but within the margin of error she was his wife to the degree society would allow.

      Now the other 130 slaves he kept? Extremely different story. There he seems to have been typical slave owner. He may not have abused his slaves personally but he hired others who did. All but a few were sold after his death to pay off debts.

      But with the benefit of history we’re going to condemn him for Sally as opposed to the rest?Report

  2. Mark says:

    I don’t think that we are all that lax on contemporary evildoers. We have 2.3 million people in prison.Report

  3. Fillyjonk says:

    1. Very nicely done and I do hope maybe someday we learn again as a culture what mercy and forgiveness are

    2. Santa slid down the wrong chimney. I mean, I reckon that “Santa Baby” song is basically the singer offering some poorly-disguised quid pro quo in return for that sable and that convertible.Report

  4. “Personally I suspect it’s to taint innocent-but-imperfect people who live today with the sins of the past, to declare some of us guilty in perpetuity for crimes our ancestors committed so folks can punish those long-ago sins in the here and now. I mean we can’t just let this stuff GO,”

    Well put. Another brilliant post, Kristin!Report

  5. Chip Daniels says:

    I remember having a small epiphany of sorts when I was around 12, during a Passion Sunday Mass.

    For those not familiar, the Passion reading is where the Catholic congregation holds a reading of the Gospel account of Jesus’ trial and execution.

    During the reading, one member of the congregation is a narrator, another plays Pontius Pilate, the priest reads the words of Jesus, and the congregation at large plays the part of the crowd, whose most notable lines are where everyone roars “Crucfify Him! CRUCIFY HIM!”

    As a sensitive child, I found this troubling. Why did we have to play the bad guys, I wondered? If I were in that day and time, I wouldn’t have done that- I would have been nice to Jesus, and stuck up for Him!

    Except, a sudden flash of realization hit me, is that, nahh, I really wouldn’t. Even at 12, I knew I was pretty much certain to meekly go along with the crowd and convince myself it was the right thing to do.

    We played the part of the bad guys, because that’s the whole point!

    The Passion reading isn’t some two minute hate where we scream at people who died thousands of years ago. It is to remind us that we really are the bad guys, right here, right now, every day.

    It would be a loss if our shifting ideas about Thomas Jefferson and history were nothing more than trials where long-dead people’s reputations are put in the dock and we find them guilty or innocent.

    It would be a loss if we found him guilty, but just as much a loss if we found him innocent. Because it just lets us avert our gaze from ourselves and out behavior, to the behavior of someone else.Report

  6. blake says:

    Hey, gotta blame somebody or else I might have to take responsibility for myself.

    Good piece, atomikristin.Report

  7. Fish says:

    I read a lot of innuendos into this piece, but instead of holding myself accountable, I’m going to go ahead and credit you with clever wordsmithmanship. Well done.Report

  8. Judgment is hard, and so is declining to judge. I don’t know what I’d do if, say, I lived in the time of slavery. But to echo Chip, I’m pretty sure I’d be either one of the bad guys, or one of the guys who supposedly disapproved but who chose to be complicit in so many things the bad guys did. I think it’s a dangerous thing to go whole hog judging anyone, either from the past or even in the present.

    That said, we do have the prerogative, maybe even the obligation, to discern the actions of others and sometimes, the character of others. We need to appreciate the constraints those others operate under, but sometimes we’re called to discern them nevertheless.

    The point is to try to discern without judging (“judging” in the sense of proclaiming on the moral worth of someone, not “judging” as a synonym for discernment). Being human, I both can’t do that perfectly and will often fail to choose to do that when I can.

    I really appreciate this post, Kristin. Thanks for writing it!Report

  1. December 30, 2019

    […] media. When viewed from our position of extreme temporal privilege, from a world of Big Macs and modern medical knowhow, the idea of eating a heart for medicinal purposes is pretty funny. But even as I laughed, I got to […]Report