In this post I quoted some dialogue from the last scene in the movie Killing Them Softly. I wanted to put in some context. Maybe Jackie’s view was too harsh, too cynical, too one sided , it stripped away some historical pretense or whatever the meaning came from each reader’s personal knowledge and imagination. I forgot about this recent series of posts by Ta-Nehisi Coates until after I had posted that snip of dialogue. The Myth of Jefferson as ‘a Man of His Times’
In 1814, Jefferson’s protege Edward Coles — knowing of Jefferson’s brilliant anti-slavery writings — wrote to enlist him in the cause of ridding Virginia of slavery. Coles thought to begin this effort by manumitting his own slaves. Jefferson not only declined to help Coles, but told him he was wrong to try to free his own, telling him
[I]n the mean time are you right in abandoning this property, and your country with it? I think not. My opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from all ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, & be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them.
The laws do not permit us to turn them loose, if that were for their good: and to commute them for other property is to commit them to those whose usage of them we cannot control. I hope then, my dear sir, you will reconcile yourself to your country and its unfortunate condition; that you will not lessen its stock of sound disposition by withdrawing your portion from the mass. That, on the contrary you will come forward in the public councils, become the missionary of this doctrine truly christian; insinuate & inculcate it softly but steadily, through the medium of writing and conversation; associate others in your labors, and when the phalanx is formed, bring on and press the proposition perseveringly until its accomplishment.
Jefferson could have freed his slaves. he did not do so, contrary to some of his earlier anti-slavery writings because he was struggling financially and owning slaves was profitable for him – we see part of this shadows of this phenomenon when billionaires like the Koch brothers whine about how difficult they have it or when people resent unions and labor rights. So what should the reader take away from the dismantling of the egalitarian Jefferson legend. Maybe it is that a man with a great intelligent could use that mind to find a way to rationalize his behavior. Why he behaved the way he did, while writing about the cause of liberty and republicanism is important. Jefferson’s reasons, well thought out, if ultimately indefensible – unless money always will out, is a story of how someone who had much good in him, did something deeply immoral. history can be great in that way, even when it is dark and sordid. It affords us lessons, if we give up the emotional investment and nationalistic view of a flawless history with flawless figures. The tendency not to adjust to the realities of the past is one of the reasons progress can be so tenaciously slow.
The human brain, like Jefferson’s, tends to compartmentalize things. Just like millions of other people. Is that the answer you had in mind? The effect of perspective on unethical behavior
Dishonest behavior seems pervasive. For example, the estimated total damage to the American clothing industry from wardrobing—the habit of returning purchased clothes after wearing, amounts to $16 billion annually (Speights & Hilinski, 2005), and the damage to US companies from employee theft and fraud reaches an estimate of $994 billion a year (Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, 2008). On an individual level, research on lying has found that people lie in some 30% of their daily interactions (dePaulo, Kashy, Kirkendol, Wyer & Epstein, 1996). In stark contrast to these findings, most people, including those who engage in the above practices, maintain a positive moral self-concept (Aquino & Reed, 2002; Bem, 1972; Baumeister, 1998). If being moral is so highly valued in society, why then is unethical behavior so pervasive? And what determines its extent?