Misery, Thy Name is Rumsfeld's Vacation Home

Race, power, and history come to a head at Rumsfeld's historic 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 annual Bioneers 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 photos.)

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 The 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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