Abolition, Brazil, and the Last Confederates

ConfederadosPicture thousands of country folk down south, gathered for fried chicken, barbecue, and beer. "I Wish I Was in Dixie" plays on infinite loop. The stars and bars of the Confederate battle flag are everywhere, including belt buckles and trucker caps. Many of the partiers are descended from Confederate soldiers. Not all are white, and very few speak English.

It is the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War, and the unlikely locale of this unusual gathering is Santa Barbara d’Oeste, a rural Brazilian town colonized by Southern families fleeing the (re-)United States.

"For many of the residents," according to the Associated Press’s Jenny Barchfield, "having Confederate ancestry is a point of pride that’s celebrated in high style at the annual ‘Festa dos Confederados.’"

Most of the original Confederate immigrants "were lured by newspaper ads placed in the wake of the war by the government of Brazil’s then-emperor, Dom Pedro II, promising land grants to those who would help colonize the South American country’s vast and little-explored interior."

The emperor wanted agriculturally skilled colonists, and the former Johnny Rebs wanted to escape the rule of the Yankee carpetbaggers.

It may be tempting to conclude that another attractive feature of their new home was that the institution of slavery survived in Brazil. In fact, holding human beings as property was legal there until Dom Pedro’s daughter, Dona Isabel, acting as regent in her father’s absence, signed the Lei Áurea into law on this day, May 13, 1888, formally abolishing slavery in Brazil. And since Brazil’s was the last government in either North or South America to recognize the legality of slavery, Princess Isabel’s actions marked the end of legal slavery in the Americas.

But it’s unlikely that the legal status of slavery affected the Confederados’ decision to leave North America and start a new life south of the equator. These migrants were not from the aristocracy of plantation owners and slaveholders. They were mostly the working-class farmers who had had to compete with slave labor in the antebellum economy, and the system of slavery worked to their disadvantage.

About half the Confederados found life too hard and too foreign in the land the emperor granted them, and they eventually returned home. The rest assimilated into Brazilian society. At the time, over 40 percent of Brazil’s 10 million people were of African heritage, and about a third of them were enslaved. After abolition, being multiracial eventually became the norm. Today, no country outside of Africa has a larger population of African descendants.

Barchfield writes, "Mixed-race guests at Sunday’s party seemed unruffled by the omnipresent Confederate flag."

"To me it’s a positive symbol of my heritage," said Keila Padovese Armelin, a 40-year-old mother of two who describes herself as a "racial milkshake." "For us, it doesn’t have a negative connotation at all."

Of course, African-descended Brazilians have the luxury of viewing the flag as both historical and exotic. In the United States, it is still either a symbol of ongoing resistance or of ongoing intolerance and oppression.

Everything about the racial history of Brazil is different from the US experience. And if abolition came later to the South American country, racial harmony — or at least the blurring of the racial categories — seems to have developed considerably sooner.

The process was already underway before Dom Pedro invited the defeated Southerners to his shores. Historian James McMurtry Longo writes,

In his first and in all subsequent cabinets and government appointments, Pedro II selected Brazilians for leadership positions regardless of race. Isabel … grew up seeing men of all races serving [her] father in positions of authority.

As her father’s student, daughter, and heir, Princess Isabel followed his example. Race never played a role in her social life, political relationships, alliances or disagreements. It may have been the most important lesson Isabel learned from him.

According to economist Edward Glaeser, in his book Triumph of the City, "Emperor Pedro II disliked slavery, but fear of a political backlash may have kept him from trying to emancipate the rest of the country."

So it was while he was abroad that his daughter Isabel signed her country’s emancipation proclamation. Abolition was a popular cause in Brazil, and her subjects acclaimed Isabel as "the Redemptress" (A Redentora). Pope Leo XIII conferred on her the Golden Rose for her role in eradicating slavery from its last bastion in the Americas.

But her father "had been right to fear a backlash," writes Glaeser. "In the next year, a military coup, backed by oligarchs outraged by losing their human chattels," overthrew the monarchy.

Isabel wrote, on the day after the coup d’état that deposed her family, "If abolition is the cause for this, I don’t regret it; I consider it worth losing the throne for."

The former slavers were now in charge, but abolition proved to be irreversible, and over time, Brazilians began to integrate.

Half a century later, author Stefan Zweig — Ludwig von Mises’s Viennese contemporary — saw Isabel’s lost empire as a model for the rest of the world.

The "central problem that forces itself on each generation, and more than ever on ours," he wrote in 1941, "is the answer to the simplest and still most important question, namely: what can we do to make it possible for human beings to live peacefully together, despite all the differences of race, class, colour, religion, and creed?"

In Brazil: Land of the Future, Zweig wrote,

On the basis of its own ethnological structure, Brazil — had it adopted the European mania of nationality and race — would have become the most strife-torn, most disintegrated country on earth.…

But to one’s great surprise one soon realizes that all these different races visibly distinct by their colour alone live in fullest harmony with one another. And in spite of their different backgrounds they compete only in trying to discard their original peculiarities in order to become Brazilians as quickly as possible.

Zweig approvingly called Brazil’s social strategy "the principle of a free and unsuppressed miscegenation." In the United States, we call it the melting pot.

But if Zweig is right that Brazil’s model for the rest of the world is one of tolerance and general liberality, he may still be wrong about the flight from "original peculiarities." The racially mixed descendants of Confederate soldiers don’t seem to be discarding anything. They proudly commingle a diversity of backgrounds that many in the north would perceive as irreconcilable.

Today we can celebrate the anniversary of the demise of chattel slavery in our hemisphere. We also celebrate the divergent histories of the United States and Brazil — how differently freedom was achieved, and how amicably the descendants of Africa and Europe, by way of the American South and South America, can find common cause in beer and barbecue.


This article originally appeared on FEE.org’s Anything Peaceful on May 13, 2015.

Is the “Austrian School” a lie?

austrian-school-of-economicsDo those of us who use the word Austrian in its modern libertarian context misrepresent an intellectual tradition?

We trace our roots back through the 20th century's F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises (both served as advisors to FEE) to Carl Menger in late 19th-century Vienna, and even further back to such "proto-Austrians" as Frédéric Bastiat and Jean-Baptiste Say in the earlier 19th century and Richard Cantillon in the 18th. Sometimes we trace our heritage all the way back to the late-Scholastic School of Salamanca.

Nonsense, says Janek Wasserman in his article "Austrian Economics: Made in the USA":

"Austrian Economics, as it is commonly understood today," Wasserman claims, "was born seventy years ago this month."

As his title implies, Wasserman is not talking about the publication of Principles of Economics by Carl Menger, the founder of the Austrian school. That occurred 144 years ago in Vienna. What happened 70 years ago in the United States was the publication of F.A. Hayek's Road to Serfdom.

What about everything that took place — most of it in Austria — in the 74 years before Hayek's most famous book? According to Wasserman, the Austrian period of "Austrian Economics" produced a "robust intellectual heritage," but the largely American period that followed was merely a "dogmatic political program," one that "does a disservice to the eclectic intellectual history" of the true Austrian school.

Where modern Austrianism is "associated with laissez-faire economics and libertarianism," the real representatives of the more politically diverse tradition — economists from the University of Vienna, such as Fritz Machlup, Joseph Schumpeter, and Oskar Morgenstern — were embarrassed by their association with Hayek's bestseller and its capitalistic supporters.

These "native-born Austrians ceased to be 'Austrian,'" writes Wasserman, "when Mises and a simplified Hayek captured the imagination of a small group of businessmen and radicals in the US."

Wasserman describes the popular reception of the as "the birth of a movement — and the reduction of a tradition."

Are we guilty of Wasserman's charges? Do modern Austrians misunderstand our own tradition, or worse yet, misrepresent our history?

In fact, Wasserman himself is guilty of a profound misunderstanding of the Austrian label, as well as the tradition it refers to.

The "Austrian school" is not a name our school of thought took for itself. Rather it was an insult hurled against Carl Menger and his followers by the adherents of the dominant German Historical School.

The Methodenstreit was a more-than-decade-long debate in the late 19th century among German-speaking social scientists about the status of economic laws. The Germans advocated methodological collectivism, espoused the efficacy of government intervention to improve the economy, and, according Jörg Guido Hülsmann, "rejected economic 'theory' altogether."

The Mengerians, in contrast, argued for methodological individualism and the scientific validity of economic law. The collectivist Germans labeled their opponents the "Austrian school" as a put-down. It was like calling Menger and company the "backwater school" of economic thought.

"Austrian," in our context, is a reclaimed word.

But more important, modern Austrian economics is not the dogmatic ideology that Wasserman describes. In his blog post, he provides no actual information about the work being done by the dozens of active Austrian economists in academia, with tenured positions at colleges and universities whose names are recognizable.

He tells his readers nothing about the books they have produced that have been published by top university presses. He does not mention that they have published in top peer-reviewed journals in the economics discipline, as well as in philosophy and political science, or that the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics consistently packs meeting rooms at the Southern Economic Association meetings.

Have all of these university presses, top journals, and long-standing professional societies, not to mention tenure committees at dozens of universities, simply lost their collective minds and allowed themselves to be snookered by an ideological sleeper cell?

Or perhaps in his zeal to score ideological points of his own, Wasserman chose to take his understanding of Austrian economics from those who consume it on the Internet and elsewhere rather than doing the hard work of finding out what professional economists associated with the school are producing. Full of confirmation bias, he found what he “knew” was out there, and he ends up offering a caricature of the robust intellectual movement that is the contemporary version of the school.

The modern Austrian school, which has now returned to the Continent and spread across the globe after decades in America, is not the dogmatic monolith Wasserman contends. The school is alive with both internal debates about its methodology and theoretical propositions and debates about its relationship to the rest of the economics discipline, not to mention the size of the state.

Modern Austrian economists are constantly finding new ideas to mix in with the work of Menger, Böhm-Bawerk, Mises, and Hayek. The most interesting work done by Austrians right now is bringing in insights from Nobelists like James Buchanan, Elinor Ostrom, and Vernon Smith, and letting those marinate with their long-standing intellectual tradition. That is hardly the behavior of a "dogmatic political program," but is rather a sign of precisely the robust intellectual tradition that has been at the core of Austrian economics from Menger onward.

That said, Wasserman is right to suggest that economic science is not the same thing as political philosophy — and it's true that many self-described Austrians aren't always careful to communicate the distinction. Again, Wasserman could have seen this point made by more thoughtful Austrians if he had gone to a basic academic source like the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics and read the entry on the Austrian school of economics.

Even a little bit of actual research motivated by actual curiosity about what contemporary professional economists working in the Austrian tradition are doing would have given Wasserman a very different picture of modern Austrian economics. That more accurate picture is one very much consistent with our Viennese predecessors.

To suggest that we do a disservice to our tradition — or worse, that we have appropriated a history that doesn't belong to us — is to malign not just modern Austrians but also the Austrian-born antecedents within our tradition.


This article is coauthored with Steven Horwitz and originally appeared on FEE.org’s Anything Peaceful.

bullets, ballots, and the Bard

LincolnMemorialWhen most of us hear "John Wilkes," the next thing we think is "Booth." But Lincoln's infamous assassin was named for the once-famous English radical liberal John Wilkes, who was also a distant relative of the Booths. The earlier Wilkes has, unfortunately, been relegated a footnote in Western history.

JWB’s grandfather was a London lawyer who avidly supported the new American republic — and one of the ways grandpa Booth announced his classical-liberal values to the world was by naming his son (JWB’s father) Junius Brutus Booth, after one of Julius Caesar’s republican assassins.

As historian Barry Strauss writes at History News Network,

Booth was all but fated to compare himself to Brutus. Both his father and a brother were named Junius Brutus Booth; Booth himself played Brutus on stage and called it his favorite Shakespearean role. Just a few months before the assassination, in 1864, Booth and his two brothers played in a benefit performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in New York City. Booth played the part of Mark Antony, but another stage beckoned.

That other stage was not, according to Strauss, for the particular dramatic role Booth thought he’d be playing, because history does not work according to the rules of drama, at least not as the angry young actor understood such things.

Everything that Booth thought about Brutus, Caesar and political assassination was wrong. Yet if Booth was a lousy historian he was a faithful student of Shakespeare. The Bard makes Brutus into a noble Roman and downplays the conspirators’ squalid calculations of power and privilege. Nor did Booth consider that Brutus unleashed the dogs of war – against himself. . . .

Few of those who hear Shakespeare’s stirring lines in Julius Caesar consider how different historical events were from the play. The real tragedy is not the death of Brutus or Caesar but society’s failure to settle differences peacefully, by ballots rather than bullets – or daggers. Poetry inspires us to good deeds and bad. History teaches us the sober and complex truths that we ought to live by.

But Booth was not the only one who got history wrong:

If Booth misread the lessons of history so did Lincoln. Lincoln thought he was a peacemaker. In his Second Inaugural Address five weeks earlier he called for “charity towards all,” “bind[ing] up the nation’s wounds,” and achieving “a just and lasting peace.” But civil war lights fires that do not die out when the battles end.

Strauss believes America's 16th president was "the best hope for racial harmony and reconciliation," and says that Lincoln thought of himself as a peacemaker — assessments that many libertarians may question —  and he also implies that ballots are the only alternative to bullets, while some of us consider voting to be a lesser evil when there are positive goods available.

But as his post emphasizes, knowing the history that people carry around in their heads is essential to making sense of their motives, and a great work of historical literature, even one of the Bard's masterworks, may not be the best guide to cause and effect in matters of war and peace. History may not be a Manichean narrative, but the belief that it is has altered its course in many strange and tragic ways. And that fault, at least, is in ourselves.


This article originally appeared at Anything Peaceful as “Did Lincoln Understand History?”

This week in the Freeman: the black tradition of armed self-defense

TheFreemanArmedAndBlack

Armed and Black

The history of African-American self-defense

FEBRUARY 03, 2015 by B.K. MARCUS

A lot of people believe that blacks march in lockstep behind calls for gun control. But while the civil rights movement was largely about nonviolent resistance, many blacks exercised a legitimate right of self-defense. Many still do today.

1 Cheer for Police Corruption

Last night at Toastmasters, I delivered my most libertarian speech yet.


PoliceBribesLate at night, a tall, handsome cop is chatting up a hooker in New York City. He’s supposed to be patrolling 2nd Avenue, but he prefers to socialize with the streetwalker.

A short man with small spectacles and big teeth steps out of the shadows and tells the patrolman that he is neglecting his duty.

The police officer lifts his baton and threatens his accuser with a beating. The smaller man identifies himself as Theodore Roosevelt, the new commissioner of police, and tells the officer to report to his office the next morning.

There’s something very satisfying about this scene. A bullying cop brought down by a heroic reformer.

In 1895, before he was president, before he charged up San Juan Hill with the Roughriders, Theodore Roosevelt spent a brief spell as a police commissioner, conducting what the city papers called a “Reign of Terror” to root out corruption among New York’s Finest.

What does TR’s crusade teach us about police corruption in our own time? That’s what I’d like to address tonight.

The people of New York did not feel protected by the police. At best they found the cops negligent. At worst the citizens felt threatened by their supposed protectors.

Roosevelt’s early anti-corruption campaign made the city safer — and made him the most popular political figure in New York.

Three cheers for the great reformer, right? Well, I want to reserve one cheer for corruption.

If I were trying to persuade you that puppies are cute, or that love is good, I’m guessing I wouldn’t have a very hard time. But preaching to the choir is boring. Instead I’d like to play Devil’s advocate and argue that widespread corruption among the police is not necessarily a bad thing. It very much depends on which supposed duties the cops are violating.

OVER THERE

Let’s start with an almost absurdly easy case. In Nazi-occupied Europe, the law said it was a policeman’s duty — in fact, it was every citizen’s duty — to report Jews who hadn’t made themselves known to the government. The established wisdom in the West, ever since the Nuremberg Trials, is that “just following orders” isn’t enough to avoid culpability if the orders you were following were themselves morally reprehensible.

We look back on such corrupt party members as Oskar Schindler as heroic.

Has everyone here seen the movie Schindler’s List? A politically connected industrialist and a Nazi spy, Schindler helped 1,200 Jews escape the Holocaust.

We consider Schindler’s lawbreaking to be virtuous, but what about the Nazi officials he paid to let him get away with it? What if they had refused his bribes? Without their corruption, Schindler’s heroism wouldn’t have been possible.

That doesn’t make them heroes. But surely we should prefer their corruption to the duty-bound Nazis who followed the letter of the law and helped send innocent people to the concentration camps.

OVER HERE

Maybe it’s too extreme to invoke the Nazis. Let’s bring it closer to home.

Once upon a time in our own United States, it was the legal duty of a police officer, even a diehard Yankee abolitionist in the slave-free North, to assist Southern slaveowners in the capture of runaway slaves. There were heroic people, black and white, North and South, who risked everything for no immediate reward in order to smuggle escaped slaves into Canada. Again, these people were heroes — but what about the people they bribed? Shouldn’t we prefer the corrupt cops who profited from the Underground Railroad to those who insisted on obeying the law of the land?

HERE AND NOW

I’d like to bring it even closer to home. I have a friend who has cancer. He has an excellent chance of survival with chemotherapy — but the treatment is horrific. He feels like vomiting all the time, and the prescribed anti-nausea pills aren’t working.

Marijuana, however, makes the nausea go away. But medical marijuana isn’t legal in our part of the world. Think about how you felt the last time you were nauseous. For me it was on one of these puddle jumpers that fly in and out of CHO. I kept telling myself, Just hold out a little longer, just a little longer.

Now imagine feeling that way day in and day out, week after week, month after month.

Do we prefer the dutiful narcotics agent to the one who looks the other way, whatever his or her reasons for doing so?

BAD LAWS

I’m not trying to convince you that medical marijuana should be legal. I’m saying that there is some law on the books that you don’t want enforced.

If you doubt me, consider this short list of candidates:

  1. In Alabama, you can be sentenced to three months hard labor for playing cards on a Sunday. (And by the way, interracial marriage was technically illegal in Alabama only 15 years ago!)

  2. Over the mountain, in Waynesboro, there is still a law on the books that says a woman may not drive a car on Main Street unless her husband walks ahead waving a flag to warn other drivers.

  3. And throughout our fair state of Virginia, it is illegal to have sex if you are not married — and if you are married, you may only do it with the lights on, face to face.

Anyone with an ounce of moral sense has to consider some laws to be unjust.

Some laws should themselves be considered criminal.

For me, the distinction is easy: Good laws protect us from crimes — and by crimes I mean someone harming someone else. So-called victimless crimes aren’t really crimes at all.

BACK TO TR

This distinction must have been lost on Theodore Roosevelt. His anti-corruption campaign made him extremely popular with New Yorkers — at first.

Then he began to insist that the police enforce a very old and rarely observed law prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sunday. For working-class people, that was their only day off. TR may have wanted all laws enforced equally, but the people of New York understood that buying a beer on Sunday was no more criminal than having a beer any other day of the week. TR went from being the most popular man in the city to the most reviled, practically overnight. And his campaign against corruption fell apart.

CONCLUSION

I’m certainly not saying that all corruption is good. We are right to be scared of bad cops. But whether or not the corruption is a bad thing depends entirely on whether the law being corrupted is itself a good or an evil.

Thank you, Madame Toastmaster.


For a far more hardcore libertarian treatment of this subject, see Walter Block’s “Defending the Dishonest Cop.”

Hayek’s “Rejuvenating Event”

HayekNobelFreeman
Today is the 40th anniversary of F.A. Hayek’s Nobel Prize. My article in The Freeman tells the story behind the so-called Nobel, the controversy around Hayek’s winning it (and sharing it with a socialist economist), and what the prize did for Hayek’s personal life, his reputation, and his impact on the fall of European communism.

If you enjoy the article, please consider sharing it.

my darling potato

RotatoExpress-PotatoOne thing Toastmasters is teaching me is that short is sweet. I need to be sweeter.

For my speech this past week, I spent 8 minutes talking about the history of the potato. That’s one minute longer than I should have.

Each of the first 10 speeches at Toastmasters is supposed to be 5–7 minutes long. To qualify for best speaker of the night, you need to end your speech somewhere between 5 and 7 minutes. That night, two of us went overtime and the third speaker didn’t speak for long enough to qualify. No one was best. ("And all the children are above average.")

When I write for the Freeman, where a feature article is supposed to be 800–1,200 words, my first draft is always too long. It’s tough to write anything substantive in so few words. Same problem at Toastmasters: my speeches run long.

The trick in both cases is to murder your darlings. (That authorial adage has been attributed to every major writer of the last century, from William Faulkner to Stephen King, but it seems to have originated with Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.)

I’ve always taken murder your darlings as a directive to trim that fat in my prose, to kill off the side thoughts and turns of phrase I’m most proud of, because they distract from the main purpose of the writing. Clean and efficient prose can also be beautiful.

Murder your darlings applies to more than phrasing or side thoughts; it can refer to whole scenes, several characters, or even, sometimes, what you thought was the point of your piece when you first sat down to write it.

At Toastmasters, I wanted to tell one of my favorite stories, about how the 18th-century French potato evangelist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier got the working poor of Paris to adopt the potato into their diet.

Even though the potato reached Europe shortly after Columbus introduced the New World to the Old, it took centuries to become a common part of European mealtime. For one thing, both the best medical advice and the dominant religious instruction of the time told people to avoid the supposedly malignant tuber.

While religious wars fractured Christendom, Catholic priests and Protestant ministers were united in telling their congregations to shun the potato. Why? Because it wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the Bible. Surely, if God wanted human beings to eat potatoes, He’d have mentioned them in Genesis.

If that logic strikes you as questionable, wait until you hear what early-modern Europe considered the established medicinal wisdom. According to the "doctrine of signatures," any plant’s effect on the human body can be determined by its appearance. Crack open a walnut and what you find inside the shell looks like a little brain; ergo, walnuts are good for the brain. Dig a potato out of the dirt and what do you get? A filthy, pale, gnarled clump of vegetable flesh. Ergo … potatoes cause leprosy. QED.

By the 19th century, however, the potato had become such a central part of the Western diet that it caused a population explosion in Europe.

How did this maligned root vegetable go from unholy pathogen to European staple crop?

The answer seems to be war.

When soldiers descended on your part of the countryside, they carried away everything edible they could find — above ground.

If you depended on grains, you starved. But if you also grew a few potatoes, an army could pillage all your wheat, slaughter and consume all your animals, and trample your field for months without destroying your backup source of calories. As a Plan B for the downtrodden, the potato proved superior to expectations. It turns out that an acre of potatoes is more nutritious than an acre of wheat. It may have been ugly to the eye and bland on the tongue, but the potato made the peasants who adopted it stronger and healthier — and more fertile.

When Frederick the Great discovered that foreign peasants were surviving the Prussians’ invasions because of this secret buried treasure, he had seed potatoes delivered to all his Prussian peasants, along with instructions on how to plant and harvest them, and ordered all of Prussia to become potato eaters. He threatened those who failed to cooperate with having their ears and noses cut off! The Prussian people quickly adopted a potato-based diet.

Parmentier, the hero of the story I was so hot to tell at Toastmasters, served in the French military and was taken as a prisoner of war by the Prussians. Fed nothing but potatoes for three years, he emerged healthier than when he’d been captured. He returned to France with a mission: convert his fellow countrymen to this miracle food.

Freeman editor Max Borders writes, "Ultimately, there are only two forces in this world that matter: power and persuasion. Those who love liberty shun power."

Where Frederick used power, Parmentier used persuasion. And some trickery.

The king of France was easy. For His Majesty’s birthday, Parmentier gave him potato flowers and served him various potato-based dishes. Once the king was sold, the royal court rushed to follow, followed rapidly by anyone who aspired to greater social status.

Parmentier began to hold all-potato dinner parties for the VIPs of Paris, including such foreign dignitaries as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson — which is how the "French fry" came to America; Jefferson had them served in the White House.

That brings us to my favorite part of the story. The French working class wasn’t so easily persuaded. In fact, the aristocratic association with potatoes made them ever more suspect to the impoverished Parisians on the eve of the French Revolution. So Parmentier resorted to guile. He got the king’s permission to plant 40 acres of potatoes just outside Paris, and had soldiers patrol the perimeter and chase away the inquisitive. All of Paris was soon convinced that something valuable was growing in those 40 acres.

When the soldiers withdrew at night, the city’s poor snuck in and pilfered the royal potatoes. Et voilà: Parmentier’s triumph.

That last story, the tale of Parmentier’s cunning, is what took me over my time at Toastmasters. I knew I was going over time when I told it, but that last story was the whole point of my speech.

Each speaker at Toastmasters receives a small slip of paper from every person in the meeting with comments on that evening’s speech. My reviews were generally quite positive, but a couple of them told me I should have cut the last story and ended on time.

Before delivering my speech, and while delivering it, I couldn’t imagine leaving out that story. But as soon as it was over, it became clear that the story — much as I still love it — undermined the larger story I had told.

AudiblePotatoI opened with my lifelong love of French fries, and how I no longer eat them. The narrative then followed the potato from the Americas over to Europe and back again with Thomas Jefferson. From the end of the French fry in my life to the beginning of the French fry in America: a perfect narrative circle. And one that was easily told within 5–7 minutes.

But like my scheming hero, Parmentier, I had my eye on a prize that had nothing to do with the demands of my audience. Had I focused more on the organic shape of the story I was telling, the needs and virtues of that shape, and the experience of my audience — rather than my own darlings within the story — I would have realized that Parmentier was perhaps more like Frederick than I want him to be. I should instead have emulated Thomas Jefferson’s lighter touch.