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Will the Real Thomas Jefferson, Please Stand Up!

Posted by Rick · April 17th, 2004 · 3 Comments

Over at De Novo, there’s a discussion about the impact of the Internet on culture. It started with an online symposium De Novo held (great idea, that) on the topic of Internet, Law, & Culture. And Jeremy Blachman, one of the site’s founders, then writes an article titled, “Would Thomas Jefferson Have Surfed Porn Sites: An Internet Reflection.”

If Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he might surf once or twice for porn. Somehow I doubt it would be much more important to him than that.

If it were, he would not be Thomas Jefferson.

This has nothing to do with my thinking that Jefferson was a man of deep moral convictions. I believe he was that — but I’m not even sure that being a man of deep moral convictions and the occasional enjoyment of Internet porn are mutually exclusive.

It seems to me that there is a juxtaposition of the potential anyone has and the material to which they become exposed which makes that person who they are — and makes them either memorable, or not.

“Potential” would depend upon the mix of characteristics of a person, such as drive, intelligence, organizational skills, and one’s rapidity or vapidity of knowledge acquisition, among other things. Take someone with the greatest potential and stick them in solitary confinement for 20 or 30 years. It’s doubtful when the door opens, a Thomas Jefferson will pop out. On the other hand, there are high school seniors who are without a doubt of lesser “potential” (in the sense I’ve been using it here) than Copernicus, who will probably achieve more, in terms of actual volume of output relating to hard science. The education they receive affords them exposure to a richer scientific milieu; they see and do more because they stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before.

No doubt the matrix is more complicated than this. For example, another key component would be the population in which they are found. I may be in the top five or top ten of my law class, or not, dependent at least partly upon who else is in my class. Al Gore may lose an election to — wait, bad example; he would have lost that election anyway.

Seriously, every class has a valedictorian (and usually only one). But the valedictorian of 2005 might not be valedictorian if he (or she) were placed into the class of 2006; either that, or the “real” valedictorian of 2006 is no more a valedictorian. After all, only one of them is going to get that title. (Theoretically, it would be possible to have co-valedictorians, but this is rare.) In fact, the valedictorian of 2005 might even be “only” seventh or eighth in their class, were they moved to another class. And it doesn’t stop there. Ironically, a good Harvard law student could find himself bested by a good San Joaquin College of Law student on a consistent basis. It’s perhaps not likely, because of the greater quality of the Harvard student’s education (which itself is due to similar factors working at a different level), but it is possible. Yet that Harvard student is going to have better opportunities after graduation based on nothing more than the fact that he is a Harvard graduate.

Clearly this will have an impact upon future opportunities. Valedictorians and Harvard law students may receive more and better job offers than non-valedictorians and non-Harvard law students. One job offer may lead ultimately to connections that bring one to political office, while another does not, for example.

Well, what’s all this got to do with whether or not Jefferson would have surfed porn?

Just this: Jefferson would not have been the Jefferson he was but for (at least) the juxtaposition of his abilities with both the intellectual milieu in which he found himself and the period in which he lived. Given his demonstrated abilities, he would likely have still done very well — maybe even become famous — if he lived in our era. However, this would depend upon the information to which he was exposed, the intellectual milieu in which he found himself immersed. Likely as not, he would not have been overwhelmingly interested in Internet porn. If he were, this would have decreased his focus on other bits of information. Jefferson would have been a different person, probably not even recognizable as the Jefferson we know, were it even possible for him to surf the Internet — for porn or anything else.

Because on top of everything else, the amount of information — trivial, useless, mundane and profane as well as stimulating, intriguing, inspiring and transmogrifying — that Jefferson was exposed to is nothing like what the world today, particularly with the Internet, has to offer. And not only does one not “need to read the sports section of all seven major New York-area newspapers to find out whether Cliff Floyd [whoever that is] is going to be on the disabled list,” anyone doing so would be hampered in leveraging their potential.

At any rate, all my prattling aside, I think if Thomas Jefferson were alive today a) he would likely not surf Internet porn sites (at least not often) and b) we wouldn’t even know he was here. Because, in a very real sense, he would no longer be. He would just be someone named Thomas Jefferson.

And there are plenty of those to go around.

Categories: Philosophy


3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bob // Apr 17, 2004 at 1:20 pm

    Greatness is remarkably fickle.

    Would Mother Theresa been a saint if born in Beverly Hills? Would Mozart have been ‘the voice of God’had he been born in the constantly shifting 1960’s?

    Too many elements have to come together in a cosmic collison to create greatness. And perhaps the greatest element is time. It is not often that someone is seen as great, or even important, in his or her own time.

    Jefferson’s curiosity would have led him to every and any, place his imagination would take him, including internet porn.

    But the real question is this: will OUR generation, the first to embrace and expand this Internet, be known for the knowledge we spread or for trash we spread?

    Knowledge is power, porn is something lesser.

    Consider all the distractions of the Internet, DVDs, cable, Dish, etc. Do any of these media outlets forward civilization or pander to the lowest common denominator?

    That’s easy. Sex sells, learning is hard.

    Jefferson, if he stuck to his integrity, would have used the Internet to somehow make freedom more possible to the least of all citizens and knowledge available to anyone with a desire to learn.

    Just like we should be doing ….

  • 2 Rick // Apr 17, 2004 at 1:42 pm

    I don’t disagree with the policy goals you mention, but that doesn’t really have much to do with this post — at least I don’t think it does!

    At any rate, given the point of my post, which I think you got, because of your “cosmic collision” comment, I don’t know if we can say that,

    Jefferson, if he stuck to his integrity, would have used the Internet to somehow make freedom more possible to the least of all citizens and knowledge available to anyone with a desire to learn.

    Incidentally, this comment of mine represents a change in the configuration of this blog.

    Prior to this comment, it was not possible to use any HTML code in comments on this blog. I’ve often chafed under that limitation (which I imposed) because it makes italicizing and


    impossible. However, there are too many people on the Internet without real lives and/or without a sense of what doesn’t belong to them and what it means when something doesn’t belong to them. Since I wasn’t sure which HTML tags were allowed by default, I turned off HTML tags in the commenting modules that are part of this website.

    After (finally) reviewing the documentation, only certain HTML tags are allowed. These are a href, b, br, p, strong, em, ul, li, and blockquote.

    So feel free, fearless fomenters (er, I mean, “commentors”) to format your foments (er, “comments”).

  • 3 Bob // Apr 17, 2004 at 7:27 pm


    You don’t disagree with my comment but we’re talking about HTML?

    If culture is to be moved forward by technology we’re going to have to get past…Jefferson.

    IF Jefferson were alive and the internet were around then, he would have used it to pass the word of democracy and human rights to anyone who would read it.

    Regardless of bold, overstrike, italic or underline!

    Culture is not defined by technology but by the access of even the poorest citizen to technology. Even law students in search of a new class president! Vote for Rick!

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