Misery, Thy Name is Rumsfeld’s Vacation Home
Eyes widened and jaws dropped around the Utne Reader
editorial table this week as an editor shared with us a tidbit she
picked up at the weekend’s Minneapolis satellite dispatch from the
conference in San Rafael, California. It was a small side-note in a
speech by Democracy Now host Amy Goodman, a detail
just too bizarre and worrisome to let lie. I hit the internet,
eager to learn more, to verify or discredit what I ultimately found
out to be true: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld owns a vacation
home named Mount Misery, an infamous 19th century manor where
unruly slaves were sent to be broken by owner Edward Covey. The
most famous of these slaves was a rebellious, teenage Frederick
Douglass, who describes his brutal and formative experience there
in his 1855 book,
My Bondage and My Freedom.
Writes Douglass, ‘I shall never be able to narrate the mental
experience through which it was my lot to pass during my stay at
Covey’s. I was completely wrecked, changed, and bewildered; goaded
almost to madness at one time, and at another reconciling myself to
my wretched condition.’
The news of Rumsfeld’s settlement in a place of such sinister
history kicked up a flap in June with a brief mention in a breezy
piece in the
New York Times travel section. The
article focused on the up-and-coming crabbing town of St.
Michaels, Maryland, where in recent years, Vice President Dick
Cheney, press secretary Tony Snow, Rumsfeld, and other DC
powerbrokers have purchased multimillion dollar vacation homes.
Tucked between cheerful descriptions of the town and the
politicos’ homes, was a smidgeon of historical context:
Thomas M. Crouch, a broker at the Coldwell Banker office in
town, says one legend attributes the name to the original owner,
said to have been a sad and doleful Englishman. His merrier brother
then built a house, and to put him on, Mr. Crouch supposes, named
it Mount Pleasant.
But there is some historical gravity to the name, too. By 1833,
Mount Misery’s owner was Edward Covey, a farmer notorious for
breaking unruly slaves for other farmers.
And it was this brief mention that some readers — unimpressed
by how many bathrooms the homes have or the fact that these men can
reach their retreats in ‘less than 30 minutes in a government-issue
Chinook helicopter’ — homed in on.
After the article was published, bloggers exploded onto the
scene. Some cried racism, as others mused on the
super-villain-hideout nature of a name like Mount Misery, yet
overlooked its depraved past. (Strangely, some bloggers, like
Michelle Malkin, blasted the Times for
essentially inviting terrorists to Rumsfeld’s home by publishing
pictures of it, though the paper had permission to run the
The reactions testify to the all-around ickiness of a
pro-torture, war-mongering Defense Secretary spending his downtime
in a physical memorial to this country’s darkest, most violent
days. But there are deeper conclusions to be drawn, as shown by the
astute observations presented the
Commonweal Institute‘s newsletter,
Uncommon Denominator. In the piece (a
version of which appeared in
Baltimore Sun in August), Ian Finseth, a senior writer
at the institute and assistant professor of American literature
at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, argues that the problem
with Rumsfeld’s ownership of this house is not just that it
reflects an administration ‘whose power is based on intimidation
and on the subservience of others,’ not just that it
demonstrates a reputed lack of concern for African-Americans.
Rather, most alarming is that his ownership of the leisure
estates reflects ‘an attitude toward American history in which
legal property rights take precedence over the uncodified right
of the people to their shared cultural past.’
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