Monday, June 5, 2017

J.M. Opal's "Avenging the People"

J.M. Opal is Associate Professor of History at McGill University. He is the author of Beyond the Farm: National Ambitions in Rural New England and the editor of Common Sense and Other Writings by Thomas Paine.

Here Opal dreamcasts the lead role for an adaptation of his new book, Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation:
Andrew Jackson was a man of terrible passions. He tried to keep them in check, to show the world that he was a man of duty and honor, a soldier and statesman, a God-fearing son and husband of pious women. And when his passions boiled over, as they so often did, he could only blame a corrupt world for not seeing how hard he had tried. He never forgot insults, because he saw them as attacks not on him alone but on all that was good and innocent, brave and pure, virtuous and vulnerable.

In other words, he took himself very seriously, and he was ready to die—preferably to kill—to make sure that everyone else did as well.

The actor who plays such a man would have to prepare himself by dwelling on the bad things that happen to good people. He would need to picture such injustices, to turn them over in his mind, to torture himself with his imagination. Alone in a room, our would-be Jackson would have to pace around for hours on end, recounting how more powerful men had once slighted him, how they were still laughing at him, how they smirked and chortled and went on with their too-important lives. Our actor would then need to think of the cruelties, real or imagined, that had been done to his loved ones. He would behold a quiet child, bullied and beaten by thugs and dandies. He would see his dutiful wife, slandered and scorned by degenerates and Pharisees. Indeed, our method actor would have to think of the unspeakable: little boys with their scalps torn off, pregnant women with spears in their bellies, and the final, glorious moment when the guilty ones were all gathered in one spot, ripe for annihilation.

My choice for that role would be Christoph Waltz, the multilingual star of Inglourious Basterds, among other blockbusters.

In the opening scene of that film, Waltz’s character, Col. Hans Landa of the Nazi SS, questions a French countrymen who was sheltering a Jewish family. After some friendly musings about hawks, rats, and other symbols of “national character,” Landa turns deadly serious. His emotions drain from his face as he tells the Frenchmen: “You are sheltering enemies of the state, are you not?” His eyes, at once cold and smoldering, go straight through his victim, who breaks down and confesses. “You are sheltering them underneath your floorboards, aren’t you?” Landa continues. “Point out to me the areas where they are hiding.” Whereupon Landa, switching from English to French, directs his men to machine-gun the trembling family.

I do not mean to suggest that Andrew Jackson was an early republican version of a Nazi sociopath. (I am skeptical of all Nazi comparisons, and even wonder if the word should be retired so that it only refers to the specific form of German fascism that rose in the 1930s and was destroyed by the United States, the Soviet Union, and the other Allies in 1945.) I go to great pains in Avenging the People to understand why Jackson felt so aggrieved, to take seriously his claims to innocence as well as those of the American people who so fiercely loved him.

What I mean is that Waltz can portray someone who is dignified, formal, and polite in appearance, yet who also harbors terrible desires and violent urges—and who has the will and power to inflict them. That’s the Jackson I have come to know.
Learn more about Avenging the People at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue